November 29, 2021

New AFCARS data indicates foster care number down, but a closer examination may suggest a pandemic impact on entries and exits.  The new AFCARS report was released last week, and it shows a significant decrease in foster care placements decreasing from the 2019 figure of 426,566 children in care to 407, 493 children in care in 2020.

The numbers represent children in care on the end of the federal fiscal year September 30. This would compare September 30, 2019 (FY 2019), to pandemic month September 30, 2020 (FY 2020).

Generally, the total number in foster care is a combination of the number of children entering care against the number of children exiting from foster care as well as children who have remained in care through the year. In a year when there is a significant decrease you may see both a decrease in entries as well as several states increasing the number of exits. Instead, in FY 2020 you see most states decreasing both entries AND exits. You also see a dramatic drop in adoptions.

Forty-three states (including Washington DC and Puerto Rico) experienced an overall decrease in foster care population with seven seeing an increase:

  • Arizona 13,330 – 13,599
  • Arkansas 4127 — 4280
  • Illinois 18,317—20,568
  • Maine 2096 –2291
  • Nebraska 3506 –3605
  • North Dakota 1502 – 1556
  • West Virginia 7322 – 7334

Entries into foster care decreased for all but three states going down from a total of 252,352 in 2019 down to 216,838 in 2020. While there may be the temptation on the part of some to suggest an impact by the new Family First Prevention Services, few states had approved plans in place for 2020. In addition, ACF estimated (FY 2022 HHS Budget in Brief) 3,500 children served through Family First Services in FY 2020. For FY 2020 only 3 states saw an increase in entries into foster care:

  • Arkansas 3071 –3106
  • Illinois 6709 – 7837
  • North Dakota 987 – 990

Similarly, the number of exits from care also decreased across the states. Nationally the number of children who exited foster care decreased from 249,675 to 224,396. Only 6 states increased the number of children that exited from foster care:

  • Alaska 1337 – 1338
  • Illinois 4716 – 5328
  • North Carolina 4454 – 4535
  • Rhode Island 860 – 917
  • South Dakota 1027 – 1108
  • Tennessee 5081 – 5835

During the pandemic the anecdotal information suggested a freeze up in the courts. That may be most evident in the number of adoptions which had a historic drop. Only 57,881 children were adopted from foster care a significant drop from the 66,208 the year before. It is the lowest total since FY 2016 and the reduction of more than 8,300 may be the biggest year to year drop since adoptions have been tracked in the late 1990s.

Only nine states saw an increase in adoptions:

Alabama          738—816

Idaho                328—353

Iowa                 1228—1266

Oregon             792—877

South Carolina 529—551

Tennessee         1166—1186

Vermont            260—263

Virginia             769—844

Wisconsin          711—748

While adoption dropped so did the number of children waiting to be adopted decreasing from 123,809 (2019) down to 117,470 (2020).  Of children waiting to be adopted the numbers of terminations of parental rights in this group went down from 71,860 down to 63,815—the lowest number in six years.

Reasons for entry into foster care remained the relatively the same despite the decreased numbers:

  • neglect 64% (+1 percent),
  • parental drug abuse 35% (+ 1 percent),
  • caretaker inability to cope 34% (-1 percent),
  • physical abuse 13 % (the same),
  • housing 9% (-1 percent),
  • parental incarceration 6% (-1 percent),
  • parental alcohol abuse 6% (+1 percent),
  • sexual abuse 4 % (the same).

The categories of abuse overlap with some parents in two or more categories otherwise reasons for removal would total 169% so it is not accurate to dismiss 64 percent of the entries into foster care as “only” neglect.

20,010 youth emancipated “aged-out” from foster care which would be a slight decrease (435 fewer) from the year before. It is unclear what this statistic means since there was a major push (including added federal funds) to keep young people in foster care if they were about to age out.

As far as adoptions, a new statistic was added this year. Time elapsed from the termination of parental right (TPR) to adoption. There was a Mean at 12.1 months and Median 9.2 months from TPR to adoption. For the 117,000 still waiting to be adopted the period from TPR is Mean of 20.1 and the Median 12.0 months.