The number of children and youth in foster care has risen for the third consecutive year, according to recently released federal data.
Reading below the top line, though, Youth Services Insider sees one figure that suggests that we could see a course correction soon.
There are 427,910 youth in foster care, according to the one-day snapshot tallied through the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). That’s up more than 30,000 from fiscal 2012, and it follows a period of 14 years of decline.
“The national number of children in foster care is still far below where it was ten years ago, but any increase is cause for concern, and we’ve now seen increases for the past three years,” said Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for the Administration on Children and Families (ACF), in a statement last week.
The national total is essentially a sum of the number of children who have entered or re-entered foster care, plus the children who were already in it. So there are really two main drivers that determine the total: how many new children enter or re-enter the system, and how many exit to some form of permanency.
During the past three years, the number of entries to care first ticked up about 3,000 between 2012 and 2013. It jumped up another 10,000 the following year, and is up nearly 15,000 this year.
But in actuality, the increase sort of began before it began, thanks to a precipitous and then gradual drop in the number of youth leaving foster care. Recent figures for exits:
- 2010: 257,806
- 2011: 247,543
- 2012: 239,535
- 2013: 238,930
- 2014: 237,554
So for several years, both drivers were moving in the same direction, fueling the overall increase. But this year, the number of youth exiting foster care finally went back up, reaching 243,060.
The optimistic way to see that is that one driver has been reversed, which should at the very least slow the increase. Foster care exits dropped by almost 20,000 between 2010 and 2012, which occurred while the number of entries declined.
The pessimistic view would be that more exits is just an inevitability of higher totals.
Surely, this AFCARS report will be amongst the most discussed of all time, as its release precedes the final months of a Congress with federal child welfare finance reform on the docket. The Family First Prevention Services Act, passed by the House and now held up in the Senate, would permit federal IV-E entitlement funds for services aimed at preventing the need for foster care in some situations, while also limiting the federal contribution to congregate care placements.
The bill is all but dead, unless the Senate and House can come to a lame-duck session agreement that extends a few of the Family First offsets that otherwise expired with the end of the fiscal year on October 1.
ACF, which has worked behind the scenes to support the bill without officially endorsing it, said in a release last week that substance abuse-related cases are a primary contributor to the increase:
“It appears that parental substance use may have contributed to the growth in the child welfare population. From 2012 to 2015, the percentage of removals where parental substance use was cited as a contributing factor increased 13 percent (from 28.5 percent in 2012 to 32.2 percent in 2015)—the largest percent increase compared to any other circumstance around removal.”
The agency said it also conducted interviews with state child welfare directors and found that, in states with high increases, “a rise in parental substance use is likely a major factor driving up the number of children in foster homes.”
The release, which comes complete with quotes from ACF officials, is a not-at-all subtle head-nod to Family First. The bill’s expansion of IV-E funds would permit the use of federal funds to support 12 months of substance abuse treatment for a parent who, absent those services, a system would have to separate from his or her child through an out-of-home placement.
Critics of Family First have challenged Greenberg’s notion that an increase in foster care rolls is innately a bad thing. On a webinar held this month by several California organizations opposed to Family First, Public Counsel attorney Martha Matthews said that states had likely reached a “floor” under which it would not be safe to further decrease the use of foster care.
She pointed to a slight increase of 8 percent between 2010 and 2013 in the recurrence of substantiated maltreatment for children who had been reunified with their parents. Reunification accounts for about half of all exits from foster care.
“That measure has risen slightly,” Matthews, who directs Public Counsel’s Children’s Rights Project, said. “But … It may be an early indicator that it’s going to be harder for states to reduce foster care caseloads any more than they have.”
There is also some data pertinent to the more controversial aspect of Family First: its limitations on federal funds for congregate care placements. Under Family First, federal IV-E funds could only be used for two weeks of congregate care, with several notable exceptions related to clinical staffing and special needs of certain youth.
Fourteen percent of foster youth lived in a group home or institution, the two main forms of congregate care, according this year’s AFCARS report. That percentage has been steady after a significant decline in past decades.
But the number of children for whom parental rights has been terminated has ticked up slightly in the past few years. In those cases, adoption or guardianship are the only real avenues to permanency, and in cases where neither occurs, youth will get older in care, increasing the likelihood they to be placed in group settings.
So short of an increase in the pool of foster homes, or increased ability to find permanency for older youth, the reliance on congregate care is likely to increase.
Regardless of one’s position on Family First, what has become clear from the past three AFCARS reports is that there is a national trend toward increases. Back in 2014, YSI wrote about how shifts in California accounted for about 40 percent of the first year of increase. According to ACF, more than 30 states are noting an increase.
The five states with the largest percentage increases were Florida, Indiana, Georgia, Arizona, and Minnesota, according to ACF.