Just as it has for the last few years, the number of children and youth in the U.S. foster care system rose in federal fiscal year 2016. As of September 30, 2016, 437,465 children were in care—up from 427,444 in 2015 and 396,966 in 2012. The increase was expected given the continuing impact of the opioid crisis. In October, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released preliminary fiscal year 2015 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) data, which shows this increase in the foster care population. (Access the report at www.acf.hhs.gov/ cb/resource/afcars-report-24.)

The increase from 2015 to 2016 was about 2.3 percent. The number of children in care remains well below the number in 2006, when about 505,000 were in care at the end of the fiscal year.

Children in Foster Care

During fiscal year 2016, more than 273,000 children entered care and only about 250,000 exited. The number of entries was slightly higher than 2015. In 2016, the primary reason for entry was neglect (61 percent), followed by a parent’s drug use (34 percent, which is up slightly from last year’s 32 percent). Children often have multiple reasons for entry, with neglect caused by a parent’s drug use, for example.

More than 80 percent of the children in care at the end of fiscal year 2016 were in foster or pre-adoptive families, with 32 percent of these kids (139,017) in relative foster families. The percentage with relatives is a slight increase over 2015 when it was 30 percent. Perhaps because of recent attention about the need to reduce the use of group care, the percentage of children in congregate care dropped from 14 percent in 2015 to 12 percent. In 2016, 5 percent were in group homes and 7 percent were in institutions.

As usual, the goal for most children was to return home, with 55 percent having a case plan of reunification with their birth parents. Another 3 percent had a plan to leave care to live with relatives and 26 percent had an adoption plan. Sadly, the case goal for 10,549 children was to remain in long-term foster care, and for 4 percent (17,394) it was to emancipate from care. States have made no permanency plan for these children and youth.

On average, in 2016, children had been in care for 20 months, although 15 percent (63,618) had been in care for three or more years. The average age of a young person in care remained at about eight and a half years old.

Adoptions from Care

Adoptions with public agency involvement rose in 2016 to 57,208, up from between 50,000 and 53,000 in the last few years. The 2016 number of adoptions is about as high as 2009, when about 57,000 children exited foster care to adoption. While the exact numbers have fluctuated, since 2009 the percentage of children who leave care to adoption has remained steady at about 21 to 23 percent of all foster care exits.

The average age of children adopted continues to be lower than the average of all waiting children—just 6.2 years for those adopted compared to 7.7 for those waiting. About 5,400 children older than 12 were adopted in 2016, including 141 who were 18 or older.
As in previous years, most 2016 adoptions were by foster parents (52 percent) or relatives (34 percent). About 7,700 of the adoptions were by individuals and couples who were neither kin or foster parent. Most adoptions (72 percent) were by couples, with 25 percent by single women and 3 percent by single men. These statistics remain relatively constant from year to year.

Other Reasons for Exit

Reunification remains the primary reason children leave foster care, with 125,975 young people exiting to reunification in 2016. Re­unification accounted for 51 percent of all exits from care, just as it did last year. About 23 percent of children left care to adoption. Another 7 percent exited to live with relatives and 10 percent left care through guardianship, which is most often with kin.

In fiscal year 2016, 20,532 youth exited care because they aged out. The percentage of children who exited due to emancipation decreased to 8 percent (from 9 percent last year).

Waiting Children

Nationally, the number of children waiting to be adopted in 2016 also increased to 117,794 (from 111,358 in 2015). There have not been this many children waiting for a permanent family since 2008 when there were 128,000. The number of waiting children has equaled about 26 to 27 percent of children in care for many years.

On average, waiting children were 7.7 years old and had been in care for just over two and a half years (31.2 months). About half of waiting children were under age seven, and 19 percent were teenagers.

About 44 percent of waiting children were white, 23 percent were African American, 22 percent were Latino or Hispanic, 8 percent were multiracial, and 2 percent were American Indian or Alaskan Native. These percentages are very similar to the overall percentages of children in foster care during 2015.

However, the racial makeup of children adopted with public agency involvement show differences from the populations of children in care and waiting. White children make up a higher percentage of adopted children than they do of waiting children, and African American children make up a lower proportion. In 2016, 49 percent of children adopted from care were white and only 17 percent were African Ame­rican. The percentages of Asian, Hispanic, American Indian, and multiracial children is similar to their proportions in the foster care and waiting-child populations.

State Data

State data released by the Children’s Bureau showed that 35 states and Puerto Rico saw increased foster care populations from federal fiscal year 2015 to 2016. The largest percentage increases were for New Hampshire (21.5 percent), West Virginia (20.4 percent), Montana (19.9 percent), Hawaii (18 percent) Indiana (16.5 percent), and Minnesota (15.5 percent). Minnesota and Montana also experienced some of the largest percentage increases from 2014 to 2015.

Between 2015 and 2016, 14 states and the District of Columbia reduced their foster care rolls. (Pennsylvania’s foster care population remained almost unchanged.) In general, the percentage decreases were smaller than the increases, with the largest percentage decreases in Oklahoma (10.1 percent) and Rhode Island (10 percent).



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The North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) supports, educates, inspires, and advocates so adoptive families thrive and every child in foster care has a permanent, safe, loving family.


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