Recent federal data indicate that the foster child population has risen slightly over the past few years to just over 415,000 wards. During the same time, home placements appear to have declined.
I say “appear” because we have no national or state data on the number or type of foster homes currently available. Trying to verify the problem of a foster home shortage and its extent, I found data hard to come by.
Initially, I emailed all 50 state program directors of foster care, asking simply whether their state suffered from a shortage of foster homes. While the response was minimal (only five replied), the message was that neither state nor national stats are available. Two said that the counties would probably be aware of shortages. Maryland noted that they have enough foster homes overall, but have problems meeting the needs of special populations.
The Child Welfare Information Gateway of the Children’s Bureau informed me that there is no official source that compiles and tracks the number of foster homes in the United States. This fact was unequivocally confirmed by the North American Council for Adoptable Children (NACAC) and the National Foster Parent Association (NFPA). The Federal Child and Family Services Review does not even have a category to list the number and type of foster homes.
I sought parallel data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and learned that in May 2015 nearly one out of seven children in the care of our national welfare system was living in a group home. That amounts to 57,000 children, at a cost seven to ten times higher than foster care.
Approximately 23,000 of these children have no medical disability or behavioral problem that might warrant such a restrictive and expensive placement. One obvious conclusion is that we have a shortfall of foster homes for these young people.
Turning next to the Internet, I googled “foster home shortage” and spent two days downloading hundreds of news reports documenting critical local shortages in 24 states, and I am still counting. The pervasive message was that we have fewer foster homes and recruitment is becoming quite difficult.
The sheer number of homes, however, was not the sole issue. Shortages varied by state, by county, and by special populations, including: teens, sibling groups, blacks and Hispanics, and physically or mentally challenged children.
It was often difficult to find homes nearby the birth parent or within the child’s social and cultural milieu. Foster homes in some areas were dangerously overcrowded and standards were sometimes lowered out of necessity.
The shortfall has many different local causes. Substance abuse by birth parents, particularly heroin, has led to a disproportionate number of children entering the system in large cities. At the same time, foster parent recruitment becomes much more difficult with our modern trend toward both parents working outside the home. The reasons may vary but the problem is widespread.
We are diligent in gathering detailed data concerning the safety and the ultimate outcome of our children in care. Why then do we lack data for their primary resource, a family-type home?
I have been told that statistics are hard to collect from so many sources, not just from private as well as public agencies but from each local county. Others tell me it’s due to the fluid nature of a volunteer foster home system, with homes coming in and dropping out. Still others suggest that we avoid gathering the data out of denial, fearful that we might need to make some major and expensive changes in the system.
Whatever the reason for our lack of hard data, we have enough information to come to some conclusion. Using federal numbers, the Casey Foundation estimates on group homes, information (or the lack of it) from state program directors, and the overwhelming evidence from continuing news reports, we can deduce a decline in foster home recruitment and retention.
What can be done? I will share my thoughts in a forthcoming post.