The number of youth in foster care dropped by 4.5% between September of 2019 and 2020, according to annual federal data, reaching the lowest total in the past eight years, while adoptions from foster care plummeted as the coronavirus pandemic spread in America.
There were 426,566 youth in foster care on Sept. 30 of 2019, six months before the coronavirus pandemic prompted nationwide mitigation efforts that caused many child welfare agencies to scale back many services and family visits outside of the investigative phase. Six months later, as America headed into the deadly fall wave of 2020, the number of youth in the system had reached 407,493.
The number of adoptions from foster care dropped sharply after a steady five-year increase, down 13% from 66,208 in 2019 to 57,881 last year. The number of children who are awaiting an adoption also declined, but by only 5%.
The total continues a downward trend in foster care that began in 2017, when 436,552 children were in the system. The last time the total was below 400,000 was 2012. The federal report is aggregated from state submissions through what is called the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, or AFCARS.
Because AFCARS reports generally lag a year behind present day, The Imprint collects its own point-in-time foster care numbers from state child welfare agencies each year; we ask states to report their totals for March 31. As we reported earlier this week, our survey suggests that by March of 2021, the number of youth in foster care was down to about 401,000, a slight decline from the federal figure for 2020.
Following are a few other things in this year’s AFCARS report that jumped out to Youth Services Insider.
Entries and Exits
The total number of youth in foster care is, of course, fueled by two factors: how many children come in, and how many exit. And the new AFCARS report shows major shifts on both counts.
Entries into foster care plummeted in 2020, down 14% to 216,838. This year’s yet-to-be-released Child Maltreatment report will show whether investigations of maltreatment fell off a cliff, but it’s been widely documented already that reports into maltreatment hotlines plummeted all over the country in the early months of the pandemic.
Exits from foster care also dropped a significant amount, down 9% to 224,396. This is not surprising when you consider that many child welfare courts put a pause on the types of hearings that move a case along toward reunification, and that reunification services became difficult to deliver amidst lockdowns and other social mitigation strategies around the pandemic.
Federal law requires that in many child welfare cases, states seek to terminate the rights of parents if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. There was concern that as many courts slowed to a crawl during the pandemic, coupled with the closure of services parents are often required to receive on the path to reunification, more parents would hurtle toward what many call the “civil death penalty.” One member of Congress, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.), even proposed a halt to the 15/22 timeline until the pandemic was over.
The new AFCARS data suggests that the pandemic did not lead to a nationwide surge in terminations; in fact, it suggests the opposite. The number of children in foster care whose parental rights had been terminated dropped by 11% in 2020. This is perhaps more surprising given that exits from foster care slowed substantially, and that the share of foster youth who have been in care for two years or more rose from 27% to 31%.
Rise in Reunification
In 2017, the percentage of foster youth who exited foster care to reunification with parents dropped below 50% for the first time, and last year the reunification rate had dropped to 47%. This year, reunifications ticked back up to 48%.