More Kids for Fewer Homes?

Recent federal data indicate that the foster child population has risen slightly over the past few years to just over 415,000 wards. During the same time, home placements appear to have declined.

I say “appear” because we have no national or state data on the number or type of foster homes currently available.  Trying to verify the problem of a foster home shortage and its extent, I found data hard to come by.

Opinion_Feature_ImageInitially, I emailed all 50 state program directors of foster care, asking simply whether their state suffered from a shortage of foster homes. While the response was minimal (only five replied), the message was that neither state nor national stats are available. Two said that the counties would probably be aware of shortages. Maryland noted that they have enough foster homes overall, but have problems meeting the needs of special populations.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway of the Children’s Bureau informed me that there is no official source that compiles and tracks the number of foster homes in the United States. This fact was unequivocally confirmed by the North American Council for Adoptable Children (NACAC) and the National Foster Parent Association (NFPA). The Federal Child and Family Services Review does not even have a category to list the number and type of foster homes.

I sought parallel data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and learned that in May 2015 nearly one out of seven children in the care of our national welfare system was living in a group home. That amounts to 57,000 children, at a cost seven to ten times higher than foster care.

Approximately 23,000 of these children have no medical disability or behavioral problem that might warrant such a restrictive and expensive placement. One obvious conclusion is that we have a shortfall of foster homes for these young people.

Turning next to the Internet, I googled “foster home shortage” and spent two days downloading hundreds of news reports documenting critical local shortages in 24 states, and I am still counting. The pervasive message was that we have fewer foster homes and recruitment is becoming quite difficult.

The sheer number of homes, however, was not the sole issue. Shortages varied by state, by county, and by special populations, including: teens, sibling groups, blacks and Hispanics, and physically or mentally challenged children.

It was often difficult to find homes nearby the birth parent or within the child’s social and cultural milieu. Foster homes in some areas were dangerously overcrowded and standards were sometimes lowered out of necessity.

The shortfall has many different local causes. Substance abuse by birth parents, particularly heroin, has led to a disproportionate number of children entering the system in large cities. At the same time, foster parent recruitment becomes much more difficult with our modern trend toward both parents working outside the home. The reasons may vary but the problem is widespread.

We are diligent in gathering detailed data concerning the safety and the ultimate outcome of our children in care. Why then do we lack data for their primary resource, a family-type home?

I have been told that statistics are hard to collect from so many sources, not just from private as well as public agencies but from each local county. Others tell me it’s due to the fluid nature of a volunteer foster home system, with homes coming in and dropping out. Still others suggest that we avoid gathering the data out of denial, fearful that we might need to make some major and expensive changes in the system.

Whatever the reason for our lack of hard data, we have enough information to come to some conclusion. Using federal numbers, the Casey Foundation estimates on group homes, information (or the lack of it) from state program directors, and the overwhelming evidence from continuing news reports, we can deduce a decline in foster home recruitment and retention.

What can be done? I will share my thoughts in a forthcoming post.

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Jim Kenny
About Jim Kenny 36 Articles
Jim Kenny is a retired psychologist with over 50 years of clinical experience. The author of 13 books on family and child care, Dr. Kenny’s recent books are Attachment and Bonding in the Foster and Adopted Child and What Foster Parents Need to Know.


  1. Jim & Jane – what are your thoughts on the likely impact that the impending “Continuum of Care Reform” will have vis-à-vis relative caregiver housing capacity for youth in care? The new requirements aim at improving the quality of the child’s living environment but we are hearing echoes of dismay from experienced child welfare workers that these changes may in fact backfire by being too onerous. The hope behind this reform is that it will help pave the way to increase the capacity of relative caregivers to take more related children into their homes. However, living conditions in many of the households we serve are already crowded (and problematic as each member in the household must clear a background check)- and some local experts fear these well intentioned reforms may lead many relative caregivers to opt out of offering their homes because the requirements are too intrusive or too imposing. Very interested in your perspective here. Thanks and regards, Paul Freese, Los Angeles

  2. The issue of ‘enough’ foster family homes is more nuanced than your post suggests. Having done this work for over 30 years, it’s safe to say that we could never have too many homes, but the challenge is having quality homes that will serve our children. At one point my agency recruited and approved many homes – we were given a numbers goal – only to realize that few of these homes were used b/c they weren’t interested in serving the children in our care, many of whom have special needs.

    As prevention efforts have succeeded in reducing the number of children in care, those entering are coming from families with the most serious and entrenched challenges. At the same time, the child welfare system has become increasingly responsible for children once served by our mental health system as well as those with serious developmental disabilities. The rise in children with autism has also led
    to greater child welfare engagement when children become older, very aggressive, and difficult to manage.

    In my own state, we purchase treatment foster care for children with special needs. These programs are businesses that can’t stay afloat without sufficient homes. The push to reduce group care – a worthy goal on the face of it – has led to tolerating marginal homes. Too many of these families – even with training, support, and enhanced reimbursements – are incapable of meeting our children’s needs. This leads to the foster care shuffle – children moving and moving again. I’d rather see a youth stable in a quality group home than bounced from home to home.

    In my child welfare system, we serve two very different populations, a phenomenon state and federal leaders have failed to recognize. One is predominantly younger children whose placement is related to the substance abuse and/or mental health of their parents. The other group are older youth with externalizing behaviors that create a serious risk of harm to self or others.

    These are youth who have sexually exploited younger children, become assaultive towards family and community, engaged in serious property damage, and are generally noncompliant and impulsive (chronic runaways, school refusal, etc.) or engage in self-harming behavior. Some of these children have multiple psychiatric admissions before entering foster care. Serving these children in foster family homes is complicated by the severity of their needs.

    In short, although we can never have ‘enough’ foster homes, the reality is that what we need is a continuum of options to serve the children and youth for whom the child welfare system has become responsible.

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