Foster care is measured several different ways, with each indicator illustrating a different aspect of this complex system. Rate of first entries into foster care reflects the incidence of children who are removed from unsafe home environments. Number of children in care provides a snapshot of actual children in foster care at a point in time. Placement distance describes the availability of local foster homes; it generally is preferable to place foster children close to home. Placement stability is important, as it is traumatic for children to be moved from one living situation to another. Median number of months in foster care gives an indication of how much time children are spending in foster care. Length of time to adoption describes how quickly the child welfare system is able to secure a permanent, safe home for a child who cannot return to his or her family of origin. And exit status after one year in care, and after four years in care, give a picture of what happens to children after being in foster care for each amount of time, while re-entries to care reflect repeated maltreatment.
See below for links to research and more information about foster care.
Foster care is intended to provide temporary, safe living arrangements and therapeutic services for children who cannot remain safely at home due to child maltreatment or for children whose parents are not able to provide adequate care. The goal of the U.S. foster care system is to safely reunify children with their parents or secure another permanent home, such as adoption. However, too often this goal is not achieved (1). Instead, many children spend years in foster homes or group homes, often moving multiple times (2). These children are at increased risk for a variety of emotional, behavioral, and academic problems (1). Recognizing these issues, advocates and policymakers have made efforts to safely reduce the number of children living in foster care. From 2000 to 2009, the number of children in care decreased by 23%, nationwide, and by more than 45% in California. Despite this, California still had the largest number of children entering the system in 2009 (1).
Foster care services typically end abruptly at age 18 or 21, depending on the state; California has opted to extend care up to age 21. This end in services can create acute challenges for young adults who "age out" of the system. While many of these young people go on to lead successful lives, others fare poorly. A high percentage experience inadequate housing, low educational and career attainment, early parenthood, substance abuse, physical and mental health problems, and involvement with the legal system (2). Some of these problems may stem from their experience with abuse/neglect; and some problems may result from a lack of services and systemic planning to equip youth with the skills and resources to successfully transition to adulthood (2). The percentage of youth who age out of foster care has increased over the last decade, from 7% in 1998 to 11% in 2010, nationwide (2).
For more information about foster care, see kidsdata.org’s Research & Links section.
Sources for this narrative:
- Child Trends. (2011). Foster care data snapshot. (Publication No. 2011-19). Retrieved from: http://www.childtrends.org/Files//Child_Trends_2011_05_31_DS_FosterCare.pdf
- Howard, J., & Berzin, S. (2011). Never too old: Achieving permanency and sustaining connections for older youth in foster care. Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/research/2011_07_never_too_old.php
Children at risk of maltreatment and those already in the child welfare
system interact with a range of public and private systems that can help
prevent child abuse, mitigate its effects, and help children achieve
permanence in safe and stable families. Policymakers also have a role
in helping to promote positive health and well being for children in foster care
and to facilitate the connections that enable youth “aging out” of the
child welfare system to thrive as adults.
According to research and subject experts, policies that could aid
families in the child welfare system or those at risk of entry include:
- Providing families with children at risk of abuse or neglect
with a range of prevention services, including accurate risk assessment,
multi-level, community-wide parenting education (media, individual and
group supports, etc.), and home-visiting that is integrated into other
prevention strategies (1, 2, 3)
- Implementing, expanding, and funding “differential response,” in
which child protective services agencies have different levels of
response to child abuse/neglect reports, depending on the severity of
the allegations and the families’ particular needs; this approach
recognizes the variation in the nature of reports, and the value of
tailoring services to meet different needs (3)
- Providing an accessible system of mental health services for children in foster care (2), and creating incentives for early assessment and
referral for mental health issues in young children in the child welfare
system (4, 5)
- Ensuring proper implementation of existing law authorizing
additional supports to transition-age youth exiting foster care, in
order to provide stability, health care, mental health services,
housing, and meaningful school and work opportunities upon emancipation
- Continuing to identify and support effective strategies to
improve outcomes for children and families of color, especially African
American/Black and American Indian/Native American children, in the
child welfare system (8)
- Supporting the educational success of children in the child
welfare system by addressing school enrollment barriers; children’s
social, health, and academic support needs; and the need for effective
communication and data sharing among schools, foster parents, and the
child welfare system (9, 10)
For more research to support policy on child abuse prevention and
foster care, see the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Information Gateway, the California Evidence-based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare, and California Fostering Connections. For implementation tools, see Child Welfare League of America.
Sources for this narrative:
- Princeton University and Brookings Institution. (2009). Preventing child maltreatment. The Future of Children, 19(2). Retrieved from: http://futureofchildren.org/futureofchildren/publications/docs/19_02_FullJournal.pdf
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2009). Preventing child maltreatment through the promotion of safe, stable, nurturing relationships between children and caregivers. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/CM_Strategic_Direction--Long-a.pdf
- Child Welfare Information Gateway, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2008). Differential response to reports of child abuse and neglect. Retrieved from: http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/issue_briefs/differential_response/differential_response.pdf
- Halfon, et al. (2002). Mental health services for children in foster care. UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities. Retrieved from: http://www.healthychild.ucla.edu/publications/ChildrenFosterCare/Documents/Mental%20health%20brief%20final%20for%20distribution.pdf
- Cooper, et al. (2010). Addressing the mental health needs of young children in the child welfare system: What every policymaker should know. National Center for Children in Poverty. Retrieved from: http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_968.html
- Delgado, M. (2010). Proposition 63: Is the Mental Health Services Act reaching California’s transition age foster youth? Children’s Advocacy Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.caichildlaw.org/Misc/Proposition_63_Report_FINAL_Master.pdf
- Courtney, et al. (2005). The transition to adulthood for youth ‘aging out’ of the foster care system. University of Chicago. Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?id=-JorJNMaFf4C&lpg=PA27&ots=a2qSa271Ac&dq=california%20homelessness%20transition%20age%20youth&lr&pg=PA27#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Center for the Study of Social Policy, PolicyforResults.org. (April 2011). Achieve racial equity in child welfare services. Retrieved from: http://policyforresults.org/Topics/Policy-Areas/Children-Safe-Supportive-Successful-Families/Increase-Exits-from-Foster-Care-to-PERMANENCY/Exits-to-Permanency/Executive-Summary/Racial-Disproportionality.aspx
- Choice, et al. (2001). Education for foster children: Removing barriers to academic success. Bay Area Social Services Consortium and Center for Social Services Research. Retrieved from: http://cssr.berkeley.edu/pdfs/educf27.pdf
- National Working Group on Foster Care and Education. (2008). Educational outcomes for children and youth in foster and out-of-home care. Retrieved from: http://www.casey.org/resources/publications/EducationalOutcomes.htm
In 2011, 56,138 children in California were in foster care, a 48% decline since 1998. The rate of first entries into foster care fell from 3.5 per 1,000 children ages 0-17 in 1998 to 2.6 in 2011. County rates of first entries in 2011 ranged from 0.6 to 13.3 per 1,000, among counties with available data. In California, 80% of children who entered foster care for the first time in 2009-11 were removed from their families due to neglect; 10.5% due to physical abuse; and 3% due to sexual abuse. For children who entered care in the first half of 2010 (the most recent data available), 42.9% were reunified with their families and 53.1% were still in foster care one year later. Overall, children in California are spending less time in foster care; the median number of months in foster care declined from 17.2 in 2001 to 13.2 months in 2009 (latest data available).
The rate of first entries into foster care varies by age and race/ethnicity. In 2009-11, California infants entered foster care at almost three times the rate of any other age group (11.0 per 1,000). African American/Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children consistently have the highest rates of foster care entry, at 8.4 and 7.6 per 1,000, respectively in 2009-11; this compares to 2.6 for Latino, 2.5 for white, and 0.8 for Asian/Pacific Islander children during the same period.
For more information on racial disproportionality and disparities in child welfare, see the Child Welfare Information Gateway's Disproportionality Resources and a recent synthesis of research on the issue. Also, see links below.