Last week the Chronicle of Social Change released a new report and survey, The Foster Care Housing Crisis that focused new and much needed attention on the dramatic increase in foster care placements and the challenge some states are having finding enough placements for children and youth in foster care.  The report focused on capacity based on slots and growing caseloads.

Perhaps most striking is the reports projection that foster care numbers for the current year have reached a projected 443,000 for 2017.  If borne out by future AFCARS data, it would mean a huge increase in foster care placements, being the most children and youth in foster care since 2008 when official numbers were 463,000.  The latest AFCARS numbers have been late in coming out this year and it is unclear why however they are unlikely to be as high since the next AFCARS Report #24 data will represent foster care on September 30, 2016. This report survey data is for the current year of 2017.

Official data shows foster care placements stood at 397,000 in 2012 and this report suggests that increases have been taking place for 5 years.  That is in sharp contrast to decreases for every year between 1999 through 2012 when foster care numbers decreased from 567,000 to the 2012 total of 397,000.

The report shows a decreasing capacity in foster care placements (what the report refers to as “beds.”). Among the findings is that the lack of capacity is not necessarily a byproduct of complacency on the part of states. The research is based on surveys of states as well as research gained through the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs) The authors also note that the study focused on numbers and availability and they could not judge the quality of the placements including the location of the placements, the training of the families, and the matching of appropriate placements to the needs of the children and youth in care.

In some of their state specific reviews and surveys, state officials noted the availability of a placement may not reflect that the states do not have appropriate placements for certain children in care such as sibling groups, specific genders, and by age. The report also indicates that some states do not have enough capacity for Latino children.

The authors could not determine the reason for the increased placements, but it would not take too much imagination to assume the increase in opioid addictions, drug related deaths and the increased numbers of infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) are contributing factors. This is reflected in recent news reports (see sidebar). It is also unclear what impact the immigration debate is having on families being separated because of increased and aggressive immigration enforcement and how refugee and unaccompanied minors’ enforcement policies are affecting child welfare.

The last official AFCARS report by HHS was released more than a year ago in October 2016. That data indicated foster care numbers at 427,000 but was finalized in July 2016 and reflected numbers as of September 30, 2015.

If the numbers are a trend it may undercut recent years of Washington policy actions and advocacy that predicate any child welfare reforms on child welfare spending neutrality. It could also have an impact on whether Congress should extend the current Title IV-E waiver authority (enacted September 30, 2011) that expires next year. Those new waivers began to get approved at approximately the same time caseload numbers began to increase.