Foster Care Population Drops Again

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New federal data indicate that child welfare reforms are drastically reducing the nation’s foster care population, which fell by 8 percent from 2008 to 2009 and by more than 20 percent since 2002.

There were 423,773 children in foster care at the end of fiscal 2009 (September 2009) – down from about 460,000 a year earlier and from more than 540,000 a decade ago, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (A year-by-year chart is here.)

Child welfare experts attribute the decline to state and federal reforms aimed at preventing abuse and neglect, keeping children in their homes, placing more children in kinship care, and more quickly reunifying youths with their families after removal from home or permanently placing them for adoption. 

“All these efforts combined have really made an impact,” said Terri Braxton, vice president of the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). “It’s a combination of legislation, wonderful practices and research, and people now doing what they know works.”

Child welfare advocate Richard Wexler, who is routinely at odds with the CWLA, agreed that much of the decline is due to welcomed changes in child welfare practice. “Most encouraging is the fact that, once again, a lot of the decline is being driven by a decline in the number of children taken from their parents in the first place,” said Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

The foster care population has been dropping since hitting 523,000 in 2002 (save a slight uptick in 2005), according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which is maintained by the Administration for Children and Families.

 Among the reasons for the overall decline from 2008 to 2009, according to AFCARS data:

* Fewer youths entering the system – 255,000, compared with 274,000.

* More youths adopted – 57,000, compared with 55,000.

* Fewer terminations of parental rights – 70,000, compared with 79,000.

 “The bad news,” Wexler said, “is that there still are far to many children taken and far too many trapped in foster care.”