WASHINGTON — New data in a recent Health and Human Services report shows both that the number of youth in the foster care system has risen for three straight years, and that the main culprit is parental drug abuse.
For the first time, information from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System broke down the reasons children were removed from their families.
In the past, HHS did not include this data in reports because it couldn’t rely on states to accurately calculate the various reasons why youth were removed from their homes. Today, HHS officials, said their confidence in states’ ability to collect more accurate removal numbers has grown.
“The Children’s Bureau [at HHS] have seen improved reporting on these elements and decided to include the table in the FY2015 Report, for the very first time,” said Monique Richards, an HHS public affairs specialist.
The agency’s report shows the number of youth in foster care shot up to 428,000 in fiscal year 2015. This follows a 20 percent dip between 2006 and 2012, when the number bottomed out at 397,300.
“The increases we are seeing in the foster care population, and the rise of parental substance use as a contributing factor, is not limited to one or two states — this is a concern across the country,” said Rafael López, commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), in an Oct. 27 statement.
No. 2 factor
Parental substance abuse was the second most frequent reason for youth to enter foster care in 2015, at about 32 percent of all reasons for removal. That was an increase from 28.5 percent in 2012. Parental alcohol abuse accounted for 6 percent of youth referrals to foster care. Neglect remains the number one reason.
“The single biggest factor driving the numbers up is the substance abuse issues among parents,” said Melissa Rock, child welfare director at Advocates for Children and Youth, a Maryland foster care advocacy group.
While the number of children entering foster care nationally rose between 2012 and 2015, the number of children leaving care decreased between 2011 and 2014.
Still, those contrasting statistics have resulted in a net gain of more than 30,000 youth in foster care since 2011.
To push down those rising numbers, states around the country have focused on providing substance abuse prevention and treatment for adults, according to Rock.
Florida, Indiana, Georgia, Arizona and Minnesota experienced the largest increases in youth in foster care. After interviewing child welfare directors from those states, ACYF officials concluded that increases in opioid and methamphetamine abuse contributed largely to their spikes in foster care numbers.
New funding urged
To combat this problem, President Barack Obama has proposed to increase the Children’s Bureau Regional Partnership program grants from $20 million to $60 million, Lopez said.. The program aims to improve the lives of children displaced from their homes due to parental substance abuse.
President Obama has also called for a $1.1 billion in new funding to expand substance abuse treatment nationally.
“ACYF and SAMHSA’s partnership — through the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare — is focused on helping the child welfare and behavioral health systems work together to create coordinated, multisystem approaches to care that can prevent the need for children to enter the foster care system,” said Kana Enomoto, the principal deputy administrator of HHS’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA).
Put in context, the recent uptick is still dwarfed by a decade-long drop in the number of youth in foster care.
“The national number of children in foster care is still far below where it was 10 years ago, but any increase is cause for concern, and we’ve now seen increases for the past three years,” said Mark Greenberg, HHS acting assistant secretary for children and families, in a statement.
But some experts don’t think reducing the numbers helps the overall problem.
“We don’t know if a lower caseload is always good,” said Martha Matthews, directing attorney for children’s rights at Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm in California.
After states reduced the number of months children could stay in foster care in 2000, the national average for youth in foster care dipped from 30 months to 22 months, she said.
Yet, the number of kids who enter foster care remains relatively unchanged, Matthews said.
In all, 51 percent of youth in foster care reunified with their parent or principal guardian, according to the AFCARS report. But Matthews said the number of parents who had kids removed again due to substance abuse crept up to 8 percent between 2010 and 2013, so she cautions states not to rush to reunify foster children with their parents.
The Families First Prevention Services Act, meant to curb many of the problems related to foster care, is currently awaiting approval in Congress. The bill would fund prevention and treatment programs for parents suffering from drug abuse, giving foster children a softer landing back to their permanent homes.
Matthews said the bill doesn’t go far enough. She has collaborated with foster care advocacy groups in various states to plug what she calls some of the holes in the bill.
The bill would strip funding from foster children to pay for the substance abuse services it plans to provide, she said. States often step up to pay regular stipends to foster children who don’t qualify for federal money. The federal government then reimburses those states for paying out the stipends.
Matthews fears the Family First Prevention Services Act would leave states with a heavier financial burden by reducing or eliminating federal reimbursements for the stipends in favor of funding the substance abuse prevention and treatment programs. The budget crunch could force state foster care systems to turn away more children.
“Let’s say you say to the state, ‘We’re going to give you a huge fiscal incentive to have fewer kids in foster care,’” Matthews said. “They might set the threshold higher to enter foster care in the first place.”
Matthews plans to push Congress to fund the new services without taking away money from existing ones. However, it is unclear whether the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump and the newly elected members of Congress will support funding new services.
“We hope in the next congressional session, we can start over and look at the Families First act and make it do what it was intended to do,” Matthews said.