On Wednesday, December 14, HHS published final regulations for the updated Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) regulations and requirements. AFCARS data reported by states annually helps to build a profile of the “child welfare” population by producing annual numbers on children in out-of-home (foster) care, adoptions and youth aging out to name a few items. The AFCARS requirements have not been updated since 1993.
The final regulations are scheduled to take effect on January 13, 2017 and are the result of some requests for comments first in 2008, then after a delay caused by the enactment of the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success Act, additional proposals and commentary in 2015 and early this year.
There are several important changes with the new AFCARS if they are allowed to take effect in January. One major change is to provide longitudinal or long-term data in terms of the children who come into the child welfare system. Current data is limited to a point in time and can sometimes make it more difficult to get a fuller picture of children in care.
As a result of a request-for-comments from earlier in 2016, the new AFCARS will require data on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). This will be significant because there has been very limited information in terms of American Indian/Native American children within the child welfare system. Calling ICWA “the gold standard” of child welfare, many national organizations praised the idea of collecting more accurate data on Indian children. HHS highlighted the new proposals as giving us a greater ability to understand how ICWA is implemented and a better understanding of the number of American Indian/Native American children in child welfare and give us a better understanding of disproportionality as it applies to Indian populations within child welfare.
In the final regulations, HHS modified several of the requirements but left some new or alternate elements. One issue that was challenging was the reporting of the LGBTQ populations. While several groups were advocating for better data to have an understanding of what part of the child welfare population are LGBTQ some national groups had reservations about identifying children and youth in this way. As a result, HHS modified the final rule and allows for reporting of young people 14 and older who self-identify. HHS also modified some of the data regarding financial and medical assistance support and educational and disability information again reflecting the reality and challenges of data collection and data elements.
The AFCARS information as reported in the Federal Register is critical in understanding the rational and implementation. The 74-page document, in addition to providing the actual regulatory, language also discusses some of the commentary and the decision making around the rationale by HHS for their final decisions.