in 2011, 401,000 children were in foster care, a 29-percent decline from the 1999 peak of 567,000.
Children are placed in foster care when a child protective services worker and a court have determined that it is not safe for the child to remain at home because of a risk of maltreatment, including neglect and physical or sexual abuse.
Because of their history, children in foster care are more likely than other children to exhibit high levels of behavioral and emotional problems. They are also more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, and to exhibit low levels of school engagement and involvement with extracurricular activities. Children in foster care are also more likely to have received mental health services in the past year, to have a limiting physical, learning, or mental health condition, or to be in poor or fair health.1 One study found that almost 60 percent of young children (ages 2 months to two years) in foster care were at a high risk for a developmental delay or neurological impairment.2
Youth who “age out” of foster care instead of returning home may face challenges to making a successful transition to adulthood. According to the only national study of youth aging out of foster care, 38 percent had emotional problems, 50 percent had used illegal drugs, and 25 percent were involved with the legal system. Preparation for further education and career was also a problem for these young people. Only 48 percent of foster youth who had “aged out” of the system had graduated from high school at the time of discharge, and only 54 percent had graduated from high school two to four years after discharge. As adults, children who spent long periods of time in multiple foster care homes were more likely than other children to encounter problems such as unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration, as well as to experience early pregnancy.3,4
Another vulnerable group in foster care is teen parents. Both before and after the birth of their child, teen mothers in foster care are less likely to have a stable home environment. Although child welfare laws permit pregnant teens to continue living with their foster families, provided the family is willing and able to have an infant in their household, a number of state regulations may pose barriers to maintaining this continuity.5
The number of children in foster care increased during the 1990s, from 400,000 in 1990 to 567,000 in 1999, before dropping to 401,000 by 2011 (preliminary estimate). (Figure 1) Similarly, the rate of children living in foster care increased from 6.2 per 1,000 children in 1990 to 8.1 per 1,000 children in 1999, before decreasing to 5.4 per 1,000 in 2011—the lowest figure in two decades.
In 2011, nearly half (47 percent) of all foster children lived in the homes of non-relatives. Just over one-quarter (27 percent) lived in foster homes with relatives—often known as “kinship care.” Fifteen percent of foster children lived in group homes or institutions, four percent lived in pre-adoptive families, and the rest lived in other types of facilities (based on preliminary estimates). These are not substantially different from the proportions at the beginning of the decade, though there has been a slight decrease of foster children in group homes and institutions, and a corresponding increase of those in home care. (Appendix 1)
Differences by Length of Stay in Foster Care
One-quarter (27 percent) of all children who exited foster care in 2011 lived in foster care for less than six months, and another 19 percent spent six to eleven months in care. Thirty-seven percent spent one to three years in care, and 16 percent spent more than three years in care (preliminary estimates). Proportions of both very long and very short stays in foster care have been decreasing. Between 2000 and 2010, the proportion of stays that were shorter than six months decreased by 25 percent, and the proportion of stays that were three years or longer decreased by 24 percent. (Appendix 1)
Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin
Non-Hispanic white children, who made up about 53 percent of American children under age 18, accounted for 41 percent of foster children in 2011. Black children, who made up around 14 percent of all children, accounted for 27 percent of foster children in that year. Hispanic children (who can be of any race), 24 percent of U.S. children, accounted for 21 percent of foster children in 2011.6 (Figure 2)
State and Local Estimates
State-level variation in the numbers of children in foster care and entering care is wide, and not all states have had a net decrease in their foster care population over the past decade.7
2010 state-level estimates on the number of children in foster care are available from the U.S. Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau.
A number of state-level foster care indicators are also available at the KIDS COUNT Data Center. (click on Safety and Risky Behaviors, then Out of Home Placement).
In 2004, The Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care issued recommendations in the areas of system financing, accountability, and court procedures. See the report, “Fostering the Future: Safety, Permanence, and Well-Being for Children in Foster Care".
What Works to Make Progress on This Indicator
See Child Trends’ LINKS database (“Lifecourse Interventions to Nurture Kids Successfully”) for reviews of many rigorously evaluated programs, including the following which have been shown to be effective at improving outcomes for foster children:
Foster care is a living arrangement for children who a child protective services worker or a court has decided cannot live safely at home. Foster care arrangements include non-relative foster homes, relative foster homes (also known as “kinship care”), group homes, institutions, and pre-adoptive homes.
Preliminary data for 2004-2011: The AFCARS Report. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Children’s Bureau. Available at: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/index.htm#afcars
Data for 2003: The AFCARS Report: Interim FY 2003 Estimates as of June 2006. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Children’s Bureau. Available at: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/afcars/tar/report10.htm
Data for 1998 - 2002: The AFCARS report: Final for FY1998 - FY2002. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Children's Bureau. Available at: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/afcars/tar/report12.htm
Population estimates used for calculating Foster Children per 1,000 children ages 17 and under for 2000-2005: U.S. Census Bureau, Population division, July 2000, July 2001, July 2002, July 2003, July 2004, and July 2005 estimates. Available at: http://www.census.gov/popest/national/asrh/NC-EST2005/NC-EST2005-02.xls.
Population estimates by race for 2000 and 2001: Original analysis by Child Trends of Bridged Race 2000 and 2001 Population Estimates for Calculating Vital Rates, National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2003.
Population estimates used for calculating Foster Children per 1,000 children ages 17 and under for 1998-1999: Population Estimates Program, Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau. Internet release date: April 11, 2000.
Data for 1990-1997: Trends in the Well-Being of America's Children and Youth 1999. Table PF 2.3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Available at http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/99trends/
Raw Data Source
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children's Bureau, Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS).
Recommended Citation: Child Trends (2012). Foster Care. Retrieved from www.childtrendsdatabank.org/?q=node/199.
Last Updated: August 2012
1Kortenkamp, K., and Ehrle, J. (2002). The well-being of children Involved with the child welfare system: A national overview, New Federalism, Series B, No. B-43. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute. http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/310413_anf_b43.pdf
2Vandivere, S., Chalk, R., and Moore, K.A. (2003). Children in foster homes: How are they faring? Research Brief, Publication # 2003-23. Washington, DC: Child Trends. http://www.childtrends.org/files/FosterHomesRB.pdf
3Courtney, M.E., and Piliavin, I. (1998). Foster youths’ transitions to adulthood: Outcomes 12 to 18 months after leaving out-of-home care. Madison: WI, School of Social Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison , 1998, cited in Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care. (2004). Fostering the Future: Safety, Permanence, and Well-Being for Children in Foster Care. http://pewfostercare.org/
3Reilly, T. (2003). Transition from care: Status and outcomes of youth who age out of foster care. Child Welfare, 82(6), 727-746.
4Manlove, J., Welti, K, McCoy-Roth, M., Berger, A., and Malm, K. (2011). Teen parents in foster care: Risk factors and outcomes for teens and their children. Child Trends Research Brief. Available at http://www.childtrends.org/Files/Child_Trends_2011_05_31_DS_FosterCare.pdf
5Child population percentages are available at Kids Count State Level Data Online. http://www.aecf.org/kidscount/sld/compare_results.jsp?i=710
6Child Trends. (2011). Foster care Data Snapshot. Available at http://www.childtrends.org/Files/Child_Trends_2011_05_31_DS_FosterCare.pdf