The number of children and teens in US foster care and the number of youth adopted from foster care rose in 2017, according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS).
Every fiscal year, AFCARS collects data on all the children in foster care and adopted with Title IV-E agency involvement to help the government and the public track how well the child welfare system is meeting its ultimate goal of ensuring that all children have safe, stable, loving families.
As of September 30, 2017, there were 442,995 children in foster care—a 1.5 percent increase from 2016 and a 9.6 percent increase from 2013. While this marks the fifth consecutive year that the number of children in care has risen, the magnitude of each annual increase has been decreasing, and the total remains well below 1999, when the number of children in foster care reached its peak at 567,000.
Foster Care at a Glance
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) attributes these rising numbers to increased drug use across America. AFCARS data show that the primary reason for entering care was neglect, followed by parents’ drug use. Overall, children usually have multiple reasons for entry, as neglect can be caused by a parent’s drug use, for example.
Despite increasing attention to the need to reduce the use of group care, the percentage of children in congregate care rose from 12 percent in 2016 to 13 percent in 2017. AFCARS reports that 81 percent of children in care were in foster or pre-adoptive families, with 32 percent of children (140,675) in relative foster family homes.
As usual, the goal for most children was to return home, with 56 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 27 percent had an adoption plan. Sadly, the case goal for 2 percent (9,012) of children was to remain in long-term foster care, and for 4 percent (17,147) of children the goal was to emancipate from care.
On average, children remained in care for 20 months, although 15 percent had been in care for three or more years. The average age of a youth in care remained about eight and a half years old.
Permanency for Children in Care
Adoptions from Care
Along with a higher number of children in care, AFCARS reported an increase in adoptions with public agency involvement, rising from 57,209 in 2016 to 59,430 in 2017—the highest number of adoptions from foster care ever. Of children who exited care, 24 percent left to adoption, an increase from the 22-23 percent range of previous years.
The average age of children adopted continues to be lower than the average of all children in foster care—just 6.3 years for those adopted compared to 8.4 for those in foster care. About 7,492 children (13 percent of children adopted) older than 12 were adopted in 2017, including 118 who were 18 or older. While these numbers show that at least 1 percent more children over 12 years old were adopted in 2017 than 2016, the number of adopted youth 18 years or older fell.
Of all adoptions, 51 percent were by foster parents, 35 percent by relatives, and 14 percent by individuals or couples who were neither kin nor foster parents. Most adoptive parents were coupled, though 25 percent were single women and 3 percent were single men. These numbers remain relatively static year to year.
Reunification and Kinship Families
Of children who excited care, 49 percent left to reunite with birth parents compared to 51 percent in 2016. It remains the primary reason children leave foster care, while 7 percent exited to live with relatives and 10 percent left care through guardianship, which is most often with kin.
In fiscal year 2017, 19,945 youth exited care because they aged out. While this number is down from 2016, the percentage of children who exited care due to emancipation was 8 percent, the same as last year.
Waiting Children at a Glance
123,437 children in care are waiting to be adopted as of September 30, 2017, up from 116,508 in 2016. These children are, on average, 7.6 years old and have been in care for just over two and a half years (30.9 months). About half of all waiting children were under the age of seven, while 19 percent were teenagers.
The racial makeup of waiting children is similar to previous years, with a difference between the populations of children waiting to be adopted and those adopted from care. In general, there are more white children adopted from care than waiting to be adopted, and there are fewer African American children adopted from care than waiting to be adopted.
While the national number of youth in care has risen for five years, state data provided by AFCARS helps us to better understand why the numbers continue to rise by showing which states have increased, decreased, or maintained the same number of children in care.
In 2017, 18 states maintained roughly the same number of children in care from 2016, with populations not varying by more than 3 percent up or down. Six states saw a decrease of more than 5 percent—including Arizona (12.2 percent), California (5.1 percent), District of Columbia (9.1 percent), Maine (13.8), New Jersey (8.9 percent), and Oklahoma (7.5 percent).
Fifteen states saw an increase of more than 5 percent in their foster care populations: Alabama (11.4 percent), Georgia (6.2 percent), Indiana (5.4 percent), Iowa (7 percent), Kansas (6.2 percent), Minnesota (9.8 percent), Montana (14.5 percent), New Hampshire (21.8 percent), North Dakota (6.3 percent), Ohio (9 percent), Rhode Island (11.6 percent), South Dakota (13.2 percent), Tennessee (11.2 percent), West Virginia (11 percent), and Wyoming (9.3 percent).
Between 2012 and 2017, some states have seen very significant growth in their foster care rolls, including nine with increases of more than 40 percent during this period—Alaska (49.2 percent), Georgia (71.4 percent), Hawaii (48.9 percent), Indiana (86.8 percent), Minnesota (81.1 percent), Mississippi (47.1 percent), Montana (98.9 percent), New Hampshire (93.5 percent), and West Virginia (45.4 percent).
The largest numerical drop in foster care population from 2016 to 2017 was California, with a 5 percent (2,816) decrease to 51,869. The largest numerical increase was Texas, which moved up 8.6 percent (1,412) to 32,150 in 2017.