As states prepare for a child welfare overhaul that will limit federal funds to group care, a recent report shows that most systems are already gravitating toward greater use of family foster homes and relative caregivers.
Eighty-six percent of the 442,995 foster youth in America were placed with families in 2017, up 81 percent from a decade before, according to an analysis done by Child Trends and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“When it comes to finding a home for children and young people who have been separated from their parents, child welfare systems across the country are making progress in putting family first,” it says in the report, “Keeping Kids in Families.”
The analysis used data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which is managed by the federal Administration for Children and Families and is collected from state child welfare information systems. Analysts compared the most recent AFCARS period, 2017, to data from 2007.
Children were counted as living with family if they were placed in foster or pre-adoptive homes, with relatives, or in what’s called a trial home setting (a test return home to birth parents.) They were counted as not living with family if they were in a group home or any other “congregate care” placement, in independent living, or had run away from any child welfare setting.
The gains were not even across demographics or states. The upward shift in family-based placements for African-American youth was only 3 percent, and 19 percent of those children were not placed with families in 2017, the lowest of any racial or ethnic group.
Systems continue to place older foster youth outside of family settings at a far higher rate than younger children. The analysis found that 95 percent of children younger than 13 lived in family settings, but just 58 percent of teenagers did. Just over a third of teens lived in congregate care in 2017.
“States have made progress in finding more families for young people who cannot live with their parents,” the report said. “But they can do better, and they must, with a focus on finding families for older youth and achieving racial equity in their approaches and decision making.”
The overall trend toward family settings was paced by several states that have dramatically reduced their use of congregate care. Among the states with the greatest increase in family-placed foster youths: Connecticut (up 14 percent), Indiana (12 percent), Minnesota (14 percent), Nebraska (17 percent) and Rhode Island (20 percent).
Only three states saw the percentage of youth placed with families decrease: Hawaii (down 3 percent), Tennessee (2 percent) and Washington (2 percent).
In Puerto Rico, which continues a long rebuilding process after thousands of homes were destroyed in Hurricane Maria, the share of foster youth placed with families plummeted, down 10 percent from 2007. Nearly a quarter of all foster youth on the island live in congregate care, independent living or have run away.
While the 10-year trend in the use of congregate care is promising, several states have leaned more heavily on group settings since 2012, when the number of foster youth in the country began a steady increase after years of decline. The Chronicle of Social Change’s “Who Cares” project on foster care capacity found that 31 states have placed a higher percent of foster youth in these types of placements in 2016 than they did in 2012.
The Casey report comes several months before the majority of the Family First Prevention Services Act takes effect. Signed into law in February of 2018, the law opens up the Title IV-E child welfare entitlement – previously reserved for foster care and adoption costs – to be used for certain supports aimed at stabilizing some families without removing children.
The law also sets a limit of two weeks on federal funds for a congregate care placement, with some notable exceptions for clinical or targeted residential programs.
The report urges states to take advantage of the new funding available under Family First.
“The law follows a long tradition of federal legislation designed to ensure children and teens grow up in a family,” report authors said. “It recognizes that too many children are unnecessarily separated from parents who could provide safe and loving care if given access to needed mental health services, substance abuse treatment or guidance for improving their parenting skills.”
The Family First Act’s provisions on new foster care prevention funds and limits on congregate care will take effect in October of 2019. States have the option to seek a one- or two-year delay on the congregate limits, but are precluded from accessing prevention money under such a delay.