Five Years After Opening, Most Foster Homes are Long Gone

What happens in the “life” of a foster home? And why do those lives come to an end?

Those are the questions at the heart of a groundbreaking study by The Center for State Child Welfare Data. The team, led by Fred Wulczyn, looked at 14,834 newly licensed foster homes opened in one state – unidentified, though Wulczyn said it’s a “central” state – between 2011 and 2016 to find out what happened while they were active, and what were the stated reasons for the foster home’s closure.

The Imprint just launched Who Cares: A National Count of Foster Homes and Families, a data and reporting project looking at the changes in the number of non-relative homes as well as reliance on relatives and congregate care. This study, “The Dynamics of Foster Home Recruitment and Retention,” looks a layer deeper to examine issues related to how homes are utilized.

Following are some of findings that jumped out from the report, which Wulczyn hopes to build on with future analysis.

Short on Long Tenure

Perhaps the most alarming numbers relate to the attrition rate of homes from each year of the study. Only half of the homes that opened in 2016 are listed as “still active,” which echoes a recent lament in an op-ed on The Imprint by Irene Clements, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association.

Here are the percentages of homes still active from the other years:

2015: 27
2014: 17
2013: 10
2012: 8
2011: 5

Of the homes licensed in 2011, just one of every 20 remains active. Only 27 percent of the 2015 homes were still open, and according to Wulzcyn, that’s actually an understatement of the case: “25 percent are leaving within the first 2.5 months,” he said.

Why They Leave

The study parses reasons for closure into six different boxes:

  • Abuse or neglect occurred in the placement
  • The family had concerns about the child welfare agency’s performance
  • An agency decided to close the home
  • A general change in the family’s circumstances
  • The family adopted a child and stopped fostering afterward
  • The home was licensed to care for kin and stopped fostering afterward

The vast majority of closures (70 percent) occurred either because a kin placement wrapped up, or for changes in circumstances. Among the homes that never received a foster youth, family reasons accounted for 57 percent of closures.

The tiny fraction of closures attributable to frustration with child welfare agencies (not even 1 percent) was a bit surprising. The mysterious group among these is the agency closures – it would be interesting to know the reasons behind those decisions.

Manic Monthlies

Fred Wulczyn: “We are inclined to think of this all as, ‘How do the characteristics of homes affect kids?’ We are less focused on looking at how the characteristics of children affect the homes.”

While the year-to-year changes in foster homes showed a fairly consistent total of homes that increased over time, the monthly charting reflects a much noisier situation for systems to manage. We’ve included the report’s charting of home openings and closures over time below here, which reflects a more erratic reality than the smooth annual trend line.

When you think of it from the perspective of a case worker trying to find a home on any given day, it’s easy to see how the fluctuations in what homes are available could be maddening.

Wulzcyn said he isn’t convinced the month-to-month swings are pure noise, though, and hopes to see if there’s a pattern.

“The geometry appears to be noisier than if it was a straight line up or down, or flat,” he said. “But there might be just as much structure in the month-to-month data” as in yearly stats.

“There may be meaning,” he said. “And if it’s not random, we can figure out if there is an underlying cycle.”

Delayed First Customers

Of the homes that obtained licensure during the study, about one-third had a child in their homes on the first day. But that is largely due to the 4,069 homes that opened to take care of a relative’s child. In many of those cases, Wulzcyn said, the youth was already in the home before licensure was completed.

On the other side of the spectrum, 30 percent of the opened homes never got a single placement during the study period. And the average time a home stayed vacant after licensure was 52 days.

This jives with something we noticed in the numbers out of Illinois in The Imprint’s recent foster care capacity report. The number of licensed non-relative foster homes in the state is around 8,000, down from about 11,000 in 2012, according to figures provided to us by the state.

But in doing further reporting on the state’s capacity, reporter Deborah Shelton discovered that the number of homes actually being utilized was far lower: 4,054, as of June 2018.

Another thing that the study makes clear: veteran homes were utilized the most. For homes active two years or longer, agencies had a youth placed there 63 percent of the time.

Future Research

Wulczyn said his team has collected similar data from two other states – one from the northeast, the other from the deep south – and hopes to get permission and funding to proceed with further study on all three.

The records the center has obtained also allow him to link their data with the children who have actually been in these foster homes.

“We know what children showed up, when and why,” he said. “So we can look at child-by-child outcomes.”

A few of the many questions that could be explored:

  • Are there characteristics of homes where kids come and then frequently end up in congregate care?
  • What are outcomes for foster homes when kids come there as a step-down from congregate care?
  • How does the utilization of foster homes correspond to the volume of admissions to foster care?
  • Do systems tend to use the same homes over and over, and use the others only as a safety valve?
  • How does the supply-and-demand ratio of homes and youth correspond with the probability of placement into congregate care?

“We are inclined to think of this all as, ‘How do the characteristics of homes affect kids?’” he said. “We are less focused on looking at how the characteristics of children affect the homes.”

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