New AFCARS Data Collection: What to Know

For the first time since 1993, the central data collection process for children in foster care and adoption systems has gotten an update from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

New rules on the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), the national data file fed by individual collection systems in the nation’s states and territories, became final in December after two years of proposals and feedback from local stakeholders and national advocacy groups.

The update is a long time coming. HHS was about to dust off AFCARS in 2008 when then-President George W. Bush signed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. That bill effected enough changes in federal policy that a decision was made to delay an update so the new AFCARS rules could incorporate the law.

A first round of proposed rules was released in 2015 and then another in 2016; both of those received about 100 public comments.

A few notes on what is in, and what is not in, the final AFCARS update:

Adoption/Guardianship Disruption

In YSI‘s humble opinion, the biggest change reflected in this rule is that we will have a widened, albeit imperfect, view of adoption from foster care and what happens next.

For starts, states will begin reporting information specific to the youths who are adopted from foster care and whose parents receive a federally matched adoption or guardian assistance payment. AFCARS will now include demographic information about these kids, the subsidy amount and the stated end date for the subsidy. The Fostering Connections Act dramatically increased the pool of children eligible for such assistance, so this all helps HHS track a growing portion of the federal IV-E entitlement.

The other major piece, brought about by legislation signed by President Obama in 2014, requires states to report on how many children enter foster care after having already experienced a finalized adoption or guardianship arrangement. It is a major step toward reducing the biggest blind spot in youth services: what happens to foster youths after they are put in the hands of adoptive parents.

As we reported more than a year ago, when the proposed rules came out, it is far from perfect. The process will lean on caseworkers checking a box to note a prior adoption, which means said adoption would go unreported if the caseworker does not find out about it.

This process already undercounts disrupted adoptions (many failed adoptions result in a runaway situation, not a return to foster care), and the prospect of caseworkers missing prior adoptions somewhat taints the count that will happen.

HHS said it does not “expect that agencies will have difficulty in ascertaining whether the child was adopted prior to entering foster care. If the information is unknown because the child was abandoned, then the title IV–E agency would report ‘’abandoned.'”

HHS noted that several groups requested that the agency demand more intel on the prior adoptions, including the reasons for dissolution and whether or not the adoptive parents were still receiving federal adoption assistance payments. HHS rejected that, saying it received an “overwhelming response” from states that widening the collection pool on failed adoptions would “be burdensome and outweigh its utility.”

“Burdensome” is a word you see a lot in the back and forth of proposed rules, and with good reason: Usually, rules are a laundry list of stuff the feds are making states do without giving them more money to do it.

But to YSI, the lack of utility argument is hogwash on at least two data points:

  • The age of the child at the point that the adoption failed. Assuming the majority of the noted prior adoptions will have failed around the time the child is entering care, this can probably still be gleaned in data collection.
  • The status of the adoption assistance payment. No clue how this was passed over, given HHS’ stated concern elsewhere in the rules about the growth of the adoption entitlement.

Native American Tribal Systems

For the first time, AFCARS will require segmented information about children for whom the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)  applies. ICWA includes different minimum standards for the removal of Native American children from their families.

From HHS:

As we stated in the 2016 SNPRM, it is unclear how well state title IV–E agencies implement ICWA’s requirements because of the lack of data related to ICWA. Even in states with large AI/AN populations, there may be confusion regarding how and when to apply ICWA.

Sexual Orientation In, Citizenship Mostly Out

For the first time, states must report to HHS on the sexual orientation of foster youths, foster parents, and adoptive parents and guardians. Obviously, this data will emanate from case workers asking these parties to choose how they identify.

Since nobody can actually make someone answer that question, YSI will be very interested to see what comes back on this subject. We could see the “Did Not Answer” portion being very high.

HHS decided not to move ahead with a requirement that states report on whether the child or his parents were born in the United States. The agency noted overwhelming opposition from states based on a lack of relevance to the work and the potential that such inquiries could “adversely impact the worker’s relationship with families.”

But HHS did include “Parental immigration detainment or deportation” as a new option in the field of “circumstances at removal,” through which caseworkers note the situation at the point when a child is placed in care. This might shed some light on how many children are entering care because a parent or parents are facing immigration proceedings.

Health

States will now have to report, for starters, whether or not an examination was conducted to determine if a child in care presents with any of the 11 types of conditions listed in the new rules. This, perhaps, will provide a peek into how actively states use the Medicaid assistance available to them through the Early and Periodic Screening, Testing and Diagnostic (EPSDT) provisions.

And states will also have to document how many youths were diagnosed with one or more of those condition types. They are:

  • Intellectual disability
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Visual impairment
  • Hearing impairment
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Mental and emotional disorders
  • Serious mental disorders
  • Developmental delays
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Other diagnosed condition

Education

States will now have to report on the highest level of education attained by youth in care, and will have to note disruptions in academic stability related to school changes made after a removal to foster care. States pushed to at least be let of the hook on providing reasons for removing foster youth from their school of origin, but HHS wasn’t having it:

Collecting information on the reasons title IV–E agencies determine that remaining in the school of origin or a previous school is not in the child’s best interest will help to identify and address barriers to educational stability after an initial placement into foster care or a change in living arrangements.

Siblings

HHS began with a grand plan to track sibling movement through case record numbers, which states successfully shouted down in the final rules. But AFCARS will now identify the number of siblings who are together in foster care (per a one-day snapshot) and the number of siblings who are placed together in an adoption or guardianship.

Presumably, this gives us more insight into how many siblings are not in care together, and how many achieve permanence apart from each other.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1097 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for addressing the issue of what you term failed adoption, and what I have termed broken adoptions, in relation to the new AFCARs data.

    In essence, the caseworker only has to answer 4 questions.

    Was there a prior adoption?
    Prior adoption date?
    Prior adoption type?
    Prior adoption jurisdiction?

    As an initial matter, data may be lost because of the simple fact that children’s names are changed and they re-enter foster care under a different case number with a different respondent parent. The system should have a mechanism in place that connects the prior and current name so if the child returns in the back end the two can be reconciled for the social services officials or court officials. Until then, there are no instructions on how the caseworker is to identify that there was a prior adoption placement and I anticipate that a large number will fall through the cracks at this point and the number in foster care will be under-reported.

    For those that they do capture, while they learn the age the child was adopted at in comparison to when the child re-enters (thus learning how long the adoption lasted) that information is extremely limited. To improve outcomes as this is intended to do there must be data not just on how long the adoption lasted but why the adoption broke. Social science show that related factors associated with broken adoptions may include: age of the child or adoptive parent; behavioral and emotional issues of the child; prior placement history; sexual abuse history; attachments of sibling groups; attachment to the birth parent; prenatal drug and alcohol exposure; and the lack of services and resources to properly address these issues. They may also include organizational and institutional failures in the child welfare, mental health, education, health care, and legal communities.

    As our research at the Children’s Law Center in NYC has shown, there are many reasons that children return to care, with perhaps no two cases being exactly alike. Generally, the reasons likely stem from the fact that child welfare professionals underestimate or fail to acknowledge the attachment, bonding, identification, and trauma issues these children experience, as well as the tremendous need to heal these children if child welfare professionals expect to minimize broken adoptions. Indeed, financial incentives and the legislative time frames that drive the system do not allow for psychologically-based decision making. Other reasons include the death of the adoptive parent, abuse and neglect, or emotional and behavioral issues which manifest in adolescence. Compounding it all is a dearth of quality mental health treatment and post-adoption services.

    By not asking why the adoption broke, the data will provide no greater insight into the goal of the federal changes which is to “[t]o promote improved knowledge on how best to ensure strong, permanent families for children.” Unless one can identify the characteristics of these cases, one cannot determine what might have been done to avoid the broken adoption to effectuate change in policy and practice.

    In addition, the data does not capture formerly adopted children who come into contact with the child welfare system but do not enter it. Our study which focused on children returning to family court on guardianship petitions found that many children were dropped off at child welfare field offices. While N.Y.C. Children’s Services was involved in a large number of cases in the study, its role was strictly limited to finding a new placement for the child, including with biological parents, to avoid re-entry into foster care.

    Finally, this data ignores that the issue of broken adoptions is far greater than children re-entering foster care as we have seen such as when a new guardian assumes custody of the child, the child is placed on a delinquency because the adoptive parent refuses to take them home, or the child is put out and on the streets, couch hopping, or in a homeless
    shelter.

    Ultimately, looking beyond the federal data, to inform meaningful discussion and change, all legal and child welfare institutional stakeholders should collect data about the number of children that they encounter that are no longer living with their adoptive parent and the factors related to the broken adoption.

    I am pleased to share that as a result of our 2015 Broken Adoptions Symposium we recently published an online journal which can be accessed here:

    http://www.nyls.edu/diane-abbey-law-institute-for-children-and-families/wp-content/uploads/sites/136/2015/10/Beyond-Permanency-Journal-2016-Final.pdf
    Dawn J. Post
    Co-Borough Director
    The Children’s Law Center
    44 Court St., 11th Floor
    Brooklyn, NY 11201
    dpost@clcny.org

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