On Tuesday, May 12, HHS published final rule 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.
This rule finalizes revisions to the AFCARS regulations proposed on April 19, 2019. The Administration had frozen the 2016 final rule that updated AFCARS data requirements. The final rule eliminated a number of new data elements regarding the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), health care tracking of children and youth in care, almost all data on LGBTQ on parents, children and youth in the child welfare system and some of the education tracking data.

In earlier comments CWLA had emphasized the importance of revising the AFCARS data since it has not been updated since its inception in 1993.

“This new AFCARS data offers an opportunity to inform how policies enacted in recent years regarding foster care placements, human trafficking, health care status, ICWA and most importantly implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act are changing the outcomes of families and children.”

AFCARS, as anyone in the child welfare world understands, results in the annual reports that tell how many children are in foster care, waiting to be adopted, adopted from care and several other statistics and information around length of stay and status. Constructed in a more primitive digital era in 1993 (which resulted from a 1986 Congressional directive) it has not been updated since. As a result, regular reports and information paint a broad picture of the children in care but is lacking in many areas such as a child’s long-term history in care, a clearer picture of subpopulations including children in institutional settings, children covered by ICWA, education, health histories, linkage to juvenile justice, sexual identity, sibling placements and additional adoption information.

AFCARS is the only compulsory national data collection system on children in foster care and was authorized by Congress in 1986 requiring HHS to collect from states consistent and reliable data on demographics and characteristics of foster and adopted children; biological, foster, and adoptive parents; the number of children entering and exiting foster care and awaiting adoption; and information on placements and permanency plan goals. The first AFCARS regulations were published by the Children’s Bureau in 1993, seven years after initial authorization. Due to the effort and cost, states were required to expend to develop and implement compliant data systems, Congress in 1994 authorized a temporary 75% enhanced federal match for states to build their new child welfare data systems. The 2016 AFCARS reporting requirements were the first updates in twenty-three years since the 1993 regulation was published. The 2016 AFCARS regulation was a major overhaul of AFCARS and state and tribal child welfare data systems.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA), Oversight Subcommittee Chairman John Lewis (D-GA), Worker & Family Support Subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis (D-IL), and Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) condemned the May 12, 2020 final rule stating that it enabled further harm to LGBTQ and Native American Foster Youth. In the statement, they state:

“Now more than ever, vulnerable children need support. Yet, the Trump Administration chose in the middle of a global pandemic to plow ahead with a rule that undermines the core mission of the child welfare system to protect and care for kids. This isn’t abstract numerical data collection. This is about making sure Congress has the tools it needs to ensure the
safety and well-being of vulnerable children.

The Trump Administration rule issued today throws out important data points established in an Obama-era rule to modernize AFCARS data standards. The Trump rule specifically eliminates data collection related to LGBTQ+ foster and adoptive families in the child welfare system — data that is essential to gauge recruitment and retention of diverse foster and adoptive families. The Trump rule also makes data reporting changes that undermine the intent of the Indian Child Welfare Act (IWCA) to keep tribal families together and to respect the unique needs of tribal communities.”