The federal government reports there are roughly 425,000 children across the United States living in foster care. The real number appears to be much, much higher — a little known shadow system known as hidden foster care.

Hidden foster care cases do not require evidence presented to a judge that a child is being abused or neglected, warranting their removal from home. Under these informal arrangements, there are no lawyers to advise parents of their rights, and low-income caregivers who receive the children are denied access to the financial support, health care and therapeutic services provided to foster parents.

In an ongoing series that includes investigative stories from across the country, The Imprint reveals the breadth and depth of hidden foster care — the separation of hundreds of thousands of children from their parents by child welfare agencies, outside of the watchful eye of the courts.

Lead illustration by Christine Ongjoco.


Kinship Caregivers in D.C. Say Child Welfare Agency Owes Foster Payments

An ongoing lawsuit filed on behalf of kinship caregivers alleges the Washington, D.C., child welfare agency denied them the public support entitled to formal foster parents.


Hidden Foster Care: All of The Responsibility, None of The Resources

Outside of the traditional foster care system exists a shadow system of potentially hundreds of thousands of children removed by CPS to their relatives or family friends—without a court case, monetary support, or due process.

North Carolina Lawmakers Send Child Welfare Bill to Governor


North Carolina DSS Supervisor Pleads Guilty in Plea Bargain

A former Child Protective Unit supervisor in North Carolina has pleaded guilty to reduced charges in exchange for his testimony against higher-ups implicated in the wrongful removal of children.


Texas Lawmaker Commits to Restricting and Tracking Hidden Foster Care

A special session bill before the feuding Texas Legislature takes aim at a practice widely referred to as hidden foster care.


Are There Way More Kids in Foster Care Than We Think?

On this week’s podcast we discuss more plans for rethinking child welfare, universal cell phone coverage for California foster youth, and another big experiment planned for the “colorblind” approach to foster care removal decisions.



Advocates Say Families Providing ‘Hidden Foster Care’ Deserve More Guidance

Nevada is relying heavily on unsupported relatives to care for children its child welfare system do not believe are safe at home.


Kentucky’s Budget Shrunk. These Informal Foster Parents Were Left with Nothing.

Natasha King, 46, and her two grandchildren. Photo: J. Tyler Franklin/WFPL
Natasha King thought it would be temporary, just a few months.  When the state called in 2013 and asked if she could parent her two grandchildren, she didn’t hesitate to take in the kids she loved more than anything in the world.

Anderson New York Illinois Safe Families Children


Faith-Based Movement to ‘Host’ Children of Struggling Families Hits Opposition in New York

In the summer of 2012, Corisma Gillespie hit a crisis point. Pregnant with her second child, the 20-year-old from the west side of Chicago had lost her job at McDonald’s. Her car was impounded, and she was about to become homeless.

New York Class-Action Lawsuit Alleges Kin Caregivers are Denied Rights by Foster Care System


How the Biden Administration Can Address Hidden Foster Care

The Biden administration will inherit a foster care system in which states report removing more than 200,000 children from their families every year.  

Joshua Gupta-Kagan, University of South Carolina School of Law
The real number is far higher, thanks to a practice that I call “hidden foster care.”

Out of State, Out of Mind


Lawsuit Alleges New York Created ‘Extremely Harmful’ Shadow Foster Care System

Three leading firms that represent children in New York City and Buffalo have filed a lawsuit seeking to halt "extrajudicial" host home programs from operating.

How Hidden Foster Care Harms Children and Parents of Color


How Hidden Foster Care Harms Children and Parents of Color

After her own experience as a kinship caregiver, Aubrey Edwards-Luce hopes the Children's Bureau can better support kin caregivers and promote racial justice.