Last Thursday, The Chronicle of Social Change reported on the topline of the recently released Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) report, the annual report produced by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).
The news was that the number of youth in foster care in America rose for a fourth consecutive year, and is up 10 percent since 2012.
Youth Services Insider had a chance to dig deeper into the numbers since the report’s release. Here are a few takeaways about what the new AFCARS #24 data suggests.
Exits Going Up … But Not Because More Kids Are Going Back Home
The last time AFCARS showed more exits than entries was 2010. The number of exits from care declined every year from 2007 (294,991) to 2014 (236,906). But for the past two years, the increase in exits has outpaced the increase in entries.
That is good news, in the absolute. It means fewer kids are living in the limbo that is foster care. But other AFCARS data suggest that more reunification with birth families is not driving the boost in exits.
In the near-term, the number of children for whom a termination of parental rights (TPR) has been issued against parents is up 12 percent since 2012. That has been driven by 40-plus percent increases in a handful of populous states, including Arizona (47 percent), Arkansas (46 percent), Illinois (49 percent) and Minnesota (45 percent).
A few lower-population states also posted massive increases in TPR: Idaho is up 45 percent, New Hampshire 62 percent and North Dakota a whopping 109 percent.
And since a TPR essentially limits the non-foster care permanency options to guardianship and adoption, it is predictable that the number of foster youth deemed to be “Waiting for Adoption” is up 15 percent since 2012.
The long-term trends also suggest that increased success at permanency has not been reaped by greater gains in reunifying families. A comparison of exits in AFCARS #24 to the report from 2007 shows that only two exit outcomes have seen notable upward trends in the past decade: adoption (up from 18 percent of exits to 23 percent) and guardianship (up from 6 percent of exits to 10 percent). In the same time frame, exits to reunification have dropped from 53 percent to 51 percent.
Look for the number of adoptions and guardianships to grow more in the next few years, especially with the recent implementation of recalculated adoption incentives that give more states a chance at hitting the incentive marks.
Progress Slows on Curbing Long-Term Languishing
In 1998, these were the stats on time spent in foster care:
Average time in care: 32.6 months
Median stay: 20.5 months.
In care for 24-plus months: 44 percent
In care for three years or more: About 33 percent
Those are the eye-popping numbers that begat the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997, which required states to terminate parental rights after a child had been in care for 15 of the previous 22 months.
The numbers were already ticking down at that point, and have steadily descended ever since. In 2015:
Average time in care: 20.4 months
Median stay: 12.6 months
In care for 24-plus months: 25 percent
In care for three years or more: 15 percent
The average time in care did tick down to 20.1 months in the new AFCARS report, but the other indicators suggest that the train has, at the very least, slowed to a stop on preventing long-term stays. The median stay went up slightly, just by .1 months, and the number of youth in care for 23-plus months is back up to 28 percent. No change in the percent of those who languish for three years or more.
Indiana is Really, Really Struggling
More than a third of all foster youth currently live in five states. Four of them are also the most populous: California, Texas, New York and Florida.
The other is Indiana, which is our 15th most populous state. The state’s entries into care went up 14 percent in the last year alone, and up 67 percent since 2012.
It is certainly not a coincidence that Indiana is also one of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. YSI doesn’t have state data on removals by age, but we wouldn’t be surprised if a big part of this surge in Indiana was newborns taken into foster care at the hospital.
Drug addiction is not in and of itself a reason to take a child into foster care. But Indiana is one of 14 states that includes newborn exposure to drugs and alcohol in the definition of abuse and neglect.
In an op-ed this fall, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) described the state’s crisis thusly:
The stories are gut-wrenching: babies born addicted to drugs; high school athletes who get hooked on the pills they’re prescribed for sports injuries; elderly Hoosiers with chronic pain problems. They come from all walks of life, and they are dying.
There is probably no more important dialogue to have in child welfare right now than the one about when children need to be removed from an addicted parent, and when they can be kept safely in the home or with family while treatment is provided.
Some States Continue Foster Care Surge; Others Start to Decline
Indiana is hardly alone in the troublesome trendline group when it comes to entries. A few other states where surges in foster care entries continued apace:
Last year increase: 20 percent
Since 2012: 52 percent
Last year increase: 20 percent
Since 2012: 66 percent
Last year increase: 21 percent
Since 2012: 40 percent
Last year increase: 16 percent
Since 2012: 20 percent
Last year increase: 11 percent
Since 2012: 15 percent
A few states saw big swings in the other direction. Arizona’s entries rose 19 percent between 2012 and 2015, then fell 8 percent last year. Alaska spiked 65 percent before falling 12 percent last year. And Georgia was up 37 percent before leveling off last year.
Many States Face Foster Home Shortages
All right, admittedly a shameless plug here for The Chronicle’s previous work. Our state-by-state research found that since 2012, at least 25 states have lost capacity in their foster care network, either by losing beds or by drawing in far less new beds than foster youths.
Some states have balanced that with a greater reliance on kinship placements. Other states have relied on faith-based organizations, or private providers, to help raise capacity. Click here to read our full report on the subject.