in Foster Care

In 2021, there were 388,963 children in foster care, the lowest number in at least a decade.


Per Day

On average, a child is abused or neglected every 54 seconds in America, or 1,599 each day.

Significant reforms to the child welfare system have prioritized keeping families together and preventing removal whenever safely possible. No policy better represents this shift than the passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) in 2018. This historic legislation provides funding for states to provide supportive services like substance use and mental health treatment, employment and housing programs, and other evidence-based services proven to decrease the chances of removal and increase the chances of successful reunifications.

This year marks the 5th anniversary of FFPSA which appropriately coincides with the finding that in 2021 the number of children in the United States foster care system hit a 10-year low, down 11% from 2017. This represents a significant step in the right direction for some of our nation’s most impacted youth. While this calls for a moment of celebration, it is important to note that this decrease in foster care entries and corresponding decrease in reports of child mistreatment is at least partially attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, children had far less interaction with mandated reporters due to school closures and medicine moving toward telehealth (NCANDS), which anecdotal evidence suggests contributed to the decline in reports.75 While numbers have steadily declined since 2017 this nuance is a reminder that our work is still far from over.

In 2021, 583,476 children (roughly equivalent to the population of Wyoming) were victims of abuse or neglect. That means, on average, a child is abused or neglected every 54 seconds in America, or 1,599 each day.    

  • In 2021, three-quarters (76%) of child maltreatment reports were cases of neglect compared to 16% that were physical abuse and 10% which were cases of sexual abuse (see Table 27). Evidence shows that many cases of neglect are symptoms of poverty, substance abuse disorder, and mental illness.
  • The youngest children are the most vulnerable to maltreatment. More than half of all child maltreatment cases in 2021 involved children who were six years old or younger, with 15% of cases involving infants under one. The victimization rate is highest for children under 1 year (25.3 per 1,000 children) and is more than double the rate of any other age.76
  • There were 388,963 children in foster care in 2021, the lowest number in at least a decade (i.e., since before 2012). The downward trend that started in 2019 (as noted in SOAC 2021) has continued, with FY 2021 representing a 4% decrease from 2020 and an 11% decrease compared to 2017’s peak of 437,000 (AFCAR) (see Table 28).77
  • Despite the nationwide drop, most states have reported a rise in the number of children in foster care. Over the last 10 years (FY2012-FY2021), 21 states and DC have seen the number of children in foster care fall, however, 29 states have more children in foster care today than they did a decade ago. Numbers have increased the most (by over 50%) in MontanaWest Virginia, and Alaska (see Table 28).
  • Entries into the foster care system in 2021 were the lowest ever recorded at 206,000, an 18% decrease from FY 2019 and is the lowest number of entries in more than two decades (see Table 28).

Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children are drastically and disproportionately overrepresented in the child welfare system. These racial and ethnic disparities can be seen at all levels of the system. Black, Brown, and Indigenous families are subject to higher rates of investigation, are at higher risk of confirmed mistreatment and placement into care, and receive disparate treatment while in care (child welfare information gateway).78 Many agencies are beginning to adopt antiracist approaches to care. To combat systemic bias and guarantee that all children receive equitable care and protection, we must begin to see system-wide reforms driven by antiracist frameworks.

Black children and American Indian/Alaska Native children are dramatically overrepresented in the child welfare system. Black children comprise 14% of children nationally, but 23% of children in foster care. American Indian/Alaska Native children represent less than 1% of children nationally, but over 2% of children in foster care. Conversely, White, Hispanic, and Asian/Native Hawaiian children are all underrepresented in foster care. In 20 states, the percent of Black children in foster care was at least twice the percent of Black children in the overall child population and in 11 states for American Indian and Alaska Native children. This discrepancy is largest in Wisconsin and Minnesota where the percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children in foster care is 7 and 15 times their share of the child population, respectively (see Table 29).

Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children are 2 and 3 times as likely to be in foster care as White children. Of every 1,000 White children in the United States, 4.8 are in foster care, compared with 9.0 of every 1,000 Black children and 16.3 of every 1,000 American Indian/Alaska Native children (Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT) (see Table 29)79

COVID-19 created unique challenges for families, youth, caregivers, and service providers, many of whom fall within a high-risk age group. In many cases, in-person visits were paused, and for some families, virtual visits were not possible due to insufficient access to Wi-Fi. Reunification and permanent placements were potentially delayed due to court closures and hearing backlogs.

Due to community-wide shutdowns children had far fewer interactions with mandated reporters like schoolteachers and doctors. While COVID’s impact is undeniable, further research is required to measure the pandemic’s exact impact on rates of maltreatment reports, investigations, and new entries into the foster system (NCANDS).80

[76] Child maltreatment 2021. The Administration for Children and Families.

[77] Youth and the Juvenile Justice System: 2022 national report. https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/publications/2022-nationalreport-ch2.pdf

[78] Trends in Foster Care and adoption: FY 2012 – 2021. The Administration for Children and Families.

[79] Child welfare practice to address racial disproportionality and disparity 2021. Child Welfare Practice to
Address Racial Disproportionality and Disparity – Child Welfare Information Gateway.

[80] Child maltreatment 2019. The Administration for Children and Families.

[81] Child maltreatment 2019 – ACF.