dramatic increase in the number of kids in foster care

The 2014 foster care data was just released showing a dramatic increase in the numbers of children in care. The question on everyone’s mind now is why?

Data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) for 2014, the last year data is available, indicates that there was an increase in the number of kids coming into care and a decrease in the number of kids leaving care. The number of kids whose parental rights have been terminated and are currently waiting for adoption increased from 104,493 in 2013 to 107,918 in 2014.

The 2014 numbers were just released so no official explanation has been given to explain the increase.

“We are concerned about any increases in the foster care numbers, and we are working hard with our state partners to better understand the reasons behind the increase,” said Rafael Lopez, commissioner of the department’s Administration on Children, Youth and Families.

Why are the Number of Kids in Foster Care Increasing

Clearly it is too early to have any definitive answers, but we can make some educated guesses. Obviously if there has been an increase nationally in children in foster care, many states are also seeing an increase. Often it is easier to tease out reasons on the state level. Some reasons states are finding include the following.

Shift in focus from family preservation to child safety

According to some state officials there has been a shift from focusing on helping the family to retain their children to focusing on the safety of the child.

Every three or four years, we see the pendulum swing, from family preservation to child safety,” Mark Jones, CEO of the Community Partnership for Children. “I think it’s got … more to do with the focus in the media, specifically on child safety and child deaths.”

Some states, for example Florida, which also saw a sharp rise in the number of children in foster care in the last year, developed a new methodology for determining whether a child should be removed from the home. The new approach looks beyond the single incident that prompts a visit from a Child Protective Services to the likelihood of danger down the road.

Jones, from Florida’s Community Partnership for Children, states: “The more questions they’re asking, the more red flags they’re seeing, and they’re seeing that children may not be safe for the long term.”

Drug Addiction

Drug and alcohol addiction by parents is often cited as one of the main reasons children enter foster care. While there is evidence of an increase in use of opioids such as heroin, morphine, and prescription pain relievers,  I couldn’t find good information on a significant increase in drug addiction in the last several years. In fact, use of most drugs other than marijuana has stabilized over the past decade or has declined.

High Turnover in Foster Care Workers

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, turnover in foster care caseworkers and supervisory staff is a major concern in many child welfare agencies. In some jurisdictions, worker turnover is as high as 90 percent per year, while in others, turnover is fairly minimal. Turnover is due to many factors including high caseload, low pay and burnout. New inexperienced worker may be more likely to err on the side of removing children from the home.

I was not, however, able to find evidence that turnover has increased in the last several years, so it’s not clear if the inability to retain workers is contributing to the increase in kids in foster care.

Lack of Services to Help Birth Families

In some states funding for services to prevent removal of children from their biological families has declined in recent years. For example, in Florida in-home services to prevent removal have declined since a peak in 2012.

Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First, says: “The key to successfully leaving children in the home after an allegation of abuse or neglect is to have the right services provided to the family at the right time, with sufficient oversight”

Thoughts? Why do you think there was a significant rise in the number of children entering foster care?