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Foster Care Numbers Up for Fifth Straight Year, Federal Data Released Today Shows

The number of youth in foster care in America rose for a fifth consecutive year in 2017, according to a federal report released today, though state data obtained by The Chronicle of Social Change suggests that the total may have plateaued or even decreased this year.

The annual report of the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which draws data on youth in foster care from each state, found 442,995 youth living in foster care as of September 30, 2017. That total is 6,444 above last year’s AFCARS report, a 1.5 percent increase from 2016 and an 11.6 percent increase from 2012.

The number of entries into foster care declined slightly in 2017, from 272,952 in 2016 to 269,690. But the number of exits from foster care also declined slightly, from 248,856 in 2016 to 247,631.

This year’s report suggests a continuing increased reliance on adoption as a permanency goal. The number of finalized adoptions, youth waiting to be adopted and children whose parents’ rights were terminated all rose in 2017.

The number of youth in foster care peaked in 1999, when AFCARS counted 567,000 children in care. The total dropped every year until it reached 397,122 in 2012.

For a third consecutive year, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials connected the rise in foster care placements with drug use in releasing the AFCARS report. Thirty-six percent of removals were associated with drug use by the parent, according to the AFCARS report, an increase of two percentage points from last year.

“To improve the well-being of children affected by substance abuse, our agency has designed programs that specifically work with families to help with early intervention, family engagement and trauma-informed service delivery for caregivers and parents dealing with a substance use disorders,” said Lynn Johnson, HHS’s assistant secretary for children and families, in a statement released with the report today. “This collaborative work with state and local child welfare agencies, substance abuse treatment agencies and courts helps us deliver these essential services to children and families with the goal of decreasing the number of children having to enter care.”

Last November, acting Administration of Children and Families (ACF) leader Steven Wagner said, “The seriousness of parental substance abuse, including the abuse of opioids, is an issue we at HHS will be addressing through prevention, treatment and recovery-support measures.”

Congress boosted HHS’ ability to do some of those things in February when it passed the Family First Prevention Services Act, which permits federal reimbursement through the Title IV-E foster care entitlement, which currently supports foster care and adoption payments, to states for substance abuse services aimed at preventing the use of foster care in some cases.

The list of allowable Family First services has yet to be produced, but could include models of drug treatment as well as family substance abuse supports. The law will not fund upstream efforts to prevent maltreatment, which HHS official Jerry Milner said remains the focal point of the administration.

“While it is critical to help children who become known to the child welfare system avoid unnecessary separation from their families when services can be offered to keep them together, it is even more important to help families and children avoid the situations that lead them to child welfare in the first place,” Milner wrote, in an op-ed published by The Chronicle in February.

In releasing this year’s AFCARS report, Milner said in a statement, “We are very happy that the rate of increase in the number of children in foster care is less than the prior year, and hope this is attributable to a greater focus on primary prevention of child maltreatment.”

The publication of the federal AFCARS report lags behind present day by more than a year, and there is some reason to believe that the rise of foster youth may have crested. In its annual reporting project on foster care capacity – Who Cares: A National Count of Foster Homes and Families – The Chronicle projects 439,020 youth in care. This is based on point-in-time figures reported directly from 49 states and the District of Columbia. [Maine did not provide a total, so we used its 2016 AFCARS total as a stand-in.]

The Chronicle did not include Puerto Rico’s total in its count, and AFCARS did. But even factoring in the island’s foster youth population, we project that the 2018 total will be very slightly below or above today’s AFCARS figures.

You can access The Chronicle‘s data, reporting and analysis from the Who Cares project by visiting

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