The number of youth living in the formal foster care system in America dropped significantly during the coronavirus pandemic, according to data collected by The Imprint, declining 4% in the first 12 months of the nation’s response to the ongoing health crisis.
There were 417,134 youth in foster care nationwide at the end of March 2020, which was the first month in which widespread social mitigation efforts were made to control the spread of the virus in the United States. By March of 2021, the total reported by states to The Imprint for its Who Cares capacity reporting project was 402,140. That is the lowest number since 2013, which was the second year of a steady surge in foster care use that coincided with the explosion of the opioid crisis in America.
Each year as part of Who Cares, The Imprint solicits data from each state child welfare agency about the number of licensed foster homes, active placements with relatives, and the number of children in the foster care system. The federal government reports on the latter point through the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), but the data lags behind by about one year. The next AFCARS report will likely be released this month, and will show data from fiscal 2020.
The use of foster care has been declining since 2017 based on state responses to The Imprint, a trend that is also reflected in the federal AFCARS reports. The last time the number of youth in foster care dropped below 400,000 was in 2011.
This year’s marked drop was fueled by 14 states where the number of foster youth dropped by more than 10%. Four states — Delaware, Iowa, Oregon and Vermont – saw totals decrease by more than 15%.
Only six states saw an increase in foster youth during the first year of the pandemic. Florida and Maine saw their totals tick up by 1%, Arizona saw a 3% increase and North Carolina a 4% increase. Two states saw an alarming surge in their total: Arkansas, up 12%, and Illinois, up 15% after an equally large surge between 2019 and 2020.
The Imprint’s 2021 data on foster care capacity will be featured soon on our Who Cares website, www.FosterCareCapacity.org. The profiles for each state will also include new federal data once its release, along with an update to the Family Separation index established by the organization Fostering Court Improvement and featured in the Who Cares project starting last year.
As The Imprint has covered in a running series this year, there is likely a significant number of youth who are removed from home each year by child welfare systems but not formally placed into foster care. The process of shifting physical custody of a child without accompanying legal custody has come to be known by many as “hidden foster care,” and some research on this practice suggests that hundreds of thousands of children are moved to relatives or fictive kin in this way each year.
Correction: After noticing discrepancies in reporting for this project by South Dakota, The Imprint elected to use point-in-time data for June of 2020 and 2021 as a substitute to the state’s direct responses for the Who Cares project. This reflects a 6% decline between 2020 and 2021, as compared to the 40% decline reflected in the state’s answers to The Imprint for both years. The national total reported in this story was updated to reflect the change.
Youth in Foster Care, By State
|District of Columbia||731||648||-11%|