This week, the Children’s Bureau released the 27th annual report from AFCARS, the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. Twice each year, states, tribes, and territories submit case data on every child in the child welfare system. This data is used for a variety of purposes, from conducting Child and Family Services Reviews to allocating funds that help youth in care transition to adulthood. Importantly, the AFCARS report allows us to better understand the experiences of children who come into contact with the child welfare system and to recognize trends and opportunities for reform.
This year’s report contained some exciting developments but also some very serious concerns.
For the second year in a row, the number of children in care fell in fiscal year (FY2019), with 11,034 fewer children in care, a reduction of 2.5 percent compared to FY2018. This was driven by a 4.4 percent decrease in the number of children entering foster care. While the number of children exiting the system decreased, a record-breaking 66,035 children were adopted from foster care last year, representing a nearly 5 percent increase over the previous record-breaking year. Additionally, as the system grapples with how to reduce reliance on congregate care facilities, the number of children placed in group homes and institutional settings fell by 7.3 percent from the previous year.
Still there were two extremely concerning trends in the AFCARS report. The proportion of youth leaving the child welfare system to reunify with their birth families has hit an all-time low. In FY2017, reunifications made up less than half of all exits from care for the first time. In FY2019, they fell even further, making up just 47 percent of all exits from care. This is an extremely troubling trend, particularly as it was offset by a dramatic increase in youth aging out of the child welfare system. After three straight years of reductions, FY2019 saw a staggering 14.6 percent increase in the number of youth reaching adulthood without the support and consistency of a permanent family. This is particularly concerning this year, as we know that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disparate impact on youth who aged out of the system, threatening their safety, livelihood, and all of the work they have done to build stable adult lives. This data underscores the critical need for Congress to respond to the unique challenges created by COVID for older youth in or transitioning from care.
While the data in this year’s AFCARS report shows that some child welfare reforms are working, it also highlights the glaring reality that improvements are coming far too slowly and there is far more work to be done. We must re-envision care for older youth so they are able to find permanency, and we must invest more heavily in supporting families so they never enter the system in the first place and so children who do enter the system are able to return home safely. We can—and must—do better.
Read AFCARS #27 here.