Substance Abuse Not Only Factor in Growing Foster Care Numbers

The number of children in foster care increased for the third straight year in fiscal 2015, according to data released in October by the Administration on Children and Families (ACF) and covered in The Chronicle. The number of children in state care increased from 401,213 on September 30, 2013 to 427,910 on September 30, 2015.  

This recent trend is a reversal of the dramatic decline in foster care caseloads from 567,000 in 1999 to 397,605 in 2012. Most of that decline was caused by a shortening of the length of stay in foster care rather than a decrease in foster care entries, although entries did decrease somewhat over the period.

The recent increase in caseloads, however, seems to be mostly due to an increase in foster care entries. That is, more children are being removed from their homes. The length of stay in foster care has changed little over the past three years, according to ACF data. But foster care entries increased from 254,712 in 2013 to 269,509 in 2015.

According to ACF data provided to this writer, 32 states reported increases in entries to foster care between 2013 and 2015, three reported basically no change, and the rest had decreased entries. The five states with the greatest increases in foster care entries between 2013 and 2015 were Georgia, Indiana, Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania.

In its press release announcing the new data, ACF reported that parental substance abuse may have contributed to the growth in the foster care population. The percentage of removals where parental substance abuse was cited as a contributing factor increased by 13 percentage points between 2012 and 2015.

Reports from around the nation indicate that increases in substance abuse have been straining child welfare agencies, sometimes leading to placement crises in which there are not enough foster homes to house all of the children who have been removed.

The five states with the greatest increases in entries to foster care accounted for 67 percent of the national increase in entries between FY 2013 and FY 2015. Child welfare directors in the states with the largest caseload increases reported to ACF that substance abuse – particularly opioid and methamphetamines – are a major factor behind the increase in foster care rolls.

However, changes in policy and practice may also have contributed to increasing foster care entries in at least three states.

In Georgia, which had the largest numerical and percentage increase in foster care entry over the two-year period, officials told David Crary of the Associated Press that the creation of a centralized child abuse hotline, toughened procedures for investigating alleged abuse, and the addition of about 600 new child welfare workers were contributing to the increase in foster care cases. The latter changes were implemented in the wake of public outrage after several children known to the system died of severe abuse.

In Florida, a widely publicized series of child deaths resulted in a new law that took effect in July 2014. That law overhauled child welfare policy, changing the emphasis from parents’ rights to child safety, and greatly increased the number of child abuse investigators.

In Minnesota, a highly publicized death in 2013 of a child who had been the subject of 15 abuse reports resulted in appointment of a task force to recommend policy changes. Some of the 93 recommendations have already been implemented. These include the repeal of a law that forbade consideration of prior screened-out reports when considering new reports, and restrictions on the types of reports that can be assigned to the “alternative” (non-investigatory) response pathway. Minnesota had a sharp increase in foster care entries in 2015.

The policy changes in Minnesota, Florida and Georgia illustrate the cyclical nature of child welfare practice. The most recent national trend has been toward favoring family preservation whenever possible, but some states are beginning to reverse their direction in light of tragic events that suggested these policies are putting children at risk..

It is worth noting that over a quarter of the states did not report increased entries to foster care between 2013 and 2015. That includes California and Texas, the states with the largest foster care populations, as well as New York, which has the fourth largest foster care population after Florida.

The national increase in foster care caseloads, however, provides reason for concern in light of the shortage of placement options for these children. At least 24 states are reporting serious shortages of foster parents, sometimes causing children to sleep in offices and hotels.

At the same time, some states have implemented restrictions on “congregate care” programs (foster placements other than family homes). Advocates are still trying to implement congregate care restrictions on the national level through the Family First Act, although that effort hangs by a thread. But for the majority of states with increasing caseloads, these restrictions could have disastrous consequences.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.