Deep Dive on Federal Foster Care Report: Permanency Slows Again, the Tiny Decline, a State in Crisis

As The Imprint reported last week, and projected last year in our “Who Cares” project, the number of youth in foster care declined slightly in 2018. And there was good news on both ends of the system as well: entries into foster care were down, and exits from foster care were up.

So says the annual report from Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which was released early Thursday morning. The report celebrates the first year since 2011 with a decline in the number of youth in the foster care system.

“It is encouraging to see the first decrease since 2011 in the number of children in foster care,” said Lynn Johnson, head of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the Department of Health and Human Services, in a statement announcing the AFCARS report. “This administration has focused on primary prevention and adoption, and we are starting to see some better results.”

Click here to read the AFCARS national report, and click here to access all of ACF’s state-by-state data. Youth Services Insider was able to dig into the state-by-state figures and check into some other trendlines. Here are a few things that jumped out:

Puerto Rico Skews The Data

In our 2018 “Who Cares” update, The Imprint projected that the number of youth in care had either plateaued or very slightly dropped. We ask states for a point-in-time count for the present year, whereas AFCARS reports lag more than a year behind.

The reported decline of 3,788 is already pretty modest. But when you account for what appears to be a wild and unlikely swing in Puerto Rico’s numbers, the change from 2017 to 2018 becomes almost nonexistent.

According to AFCARS, the number of foster youth in Puerto Rico dropped 51 percent in just the past year, from 4,539 to 2,231. For context, the next biggest dip was Nebraska, which declined 16 percent.

So what happened? After YSI asked about it, the Administration for Children and Families looked into it and said it’s a mix of data challenges and hurricane impact. From agency spokesperson Kenneth Wolfe:

Puerto Rico for several years has been in the process of developing a new IT system and transitioning all data and processes from their old system to their new system. This transition as well as Puerto Rico’s data submissions were further impacted by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

Together this has resulted in temporary data quality concerns, which post-2018 have mostly been resolved; it is anticipated that as needed, data will be resubmitted.

If you back out Puerto Rico from the totals, the foster care drop in the states was 1,480. That is a decline of three-tenths of 1 percent.

The Misleading Narrative of a National Foster Care Total

There is some value on tracking the national totals in AFCARS, but it really fails to tell the complete story of what’s happening with foster care on the ground. And this year’s report is a stark example of why.

As mentioned, the number of youth is down, albeit by a small amount. But the majority of states, 31 out of 50, saw an increase in the number of foster youth, ranging from a bump of less than 50 in Washington to increases of 10 percent or more in South Carolina, Maine, Idaho and Kentucky.

Of the 19 states with a decrease, six saw a drop of 10 percent or more: Nebraska, Mississippi, Utah, Arkansas, Indiana and Arizona.

This rings true with The Imprint’s projections for 2019. We estimate that the number of youth in care has fallen even more, down to about 428,000, but there were 16 states that reported an increase in foster between 2018 and 2019, and 11 of those states saw a jump of 10 percent or more.

New Hampshire: The New Indiana

A few years back, we noted just how alarming the trendlines were in Indiana in terms of kids coming into the system and staying. This year’s state of concern is New Hampshire, which has struggled mightily with the opioid epidemic.

New Hampshire’s foster care population has more than doubled – from 742 to 1,531 – since 2011, and went up 5 percent again in 2018. We don’t have 2018 AFCARS numbers on this yet, but between 2011 and 2017, the number of New Hampshire kids in group homes and institutions increased by 163 percent. Its use of congregate care is now nearly twice the national average.

But the biggest swing is in its adoption process, which AFCARS touches on in three ways:

  • The number of children whose parents’ rights have been terminated, which is often but not always a precursor to adoption
  • The number of youth in care awaiting an adoption, meaning that is their permanency plan
  • The number of youth in care who exited to adoption

New Hampshire terminated the rights of parents for 21 children in 2012 … then 40 in 2014 … then 78 in 2016 … then 109 in 2017. In 2018, it fell all the way back down to 24.

The number of youth waiting for adoption also reached its peak of 208 in 2017. In 2018: back down to 129, by far the lowest in a decade.

The inverse is true of actual adoptions. The state finalized between 80 and 120 adoptions in each year from 2012 to 2017. In 2018, the amount of adoptions nearly doubled, up to 204.

Bad News on The Pathway to Reunification and Permanence

Last year marked the first time in the history of AFCARS reports that less than half of kids exited foster care to reunification with their biological parents or another guardian they were removed from. The trend continued in 2018 – 49 percent of youth exited to reunification.

Perhaps what is most surprising about this is that reunification is the plan for 56 percent of kids in care, according to this year’s report. A decade ago, just 49 percent of children had a reunification plan, and yet 52 percent of kids who exited that year did so to go home.

The overall path to permanency has slowed again this year. The median length of stay in care, which 20 years ago was 20.6 months, had plummeted to 12.6 months in 2015. It is now back up to 13.2 months. The number of children waiting for adoption also climbed for the sixth straight year.

One major positive difference worth noting as YSI looked back on the AFCARS report from 2008: at least on paper, states have all but done away with using “long-term foster care” as a permanency goal. The designation is a polite way of describing a plan to have a youth age out of care into adulthood.

In 2008, nearly 10 percent of kids in care had a permanency of plan of “no permanency,” which in that year amounted to 37,522 youths. In 2018: 2 percent, or 6,645 youths, had no permanency plan.

Also on the bright side, truly egregious waits in foster care have gone way down. Twenty-four percent of kids in care had waited three or more years in the system back in 2008, and it’s down now to 14 percent (still way too high).

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