The State of the Children: An Examination of Government-Run Foster Care

Studies | Social

No. 210
Friday, August 01, 1997
by Conna Craig and Derek Herbert


Executive Summary

More than 650,000 American children will spend all or part of 1997 in government-run foster care - in foster homes, group homes, children's shelters and other institutions. Most will enter due to substantiated abuse or neglect. Although the foster care system was designed to provide temporary care, all too often children remain in state custody for years. This year some 15,000 foster children will leave the system - without permanent families - by reaching the age of majority.

With the lives of the nation's most vulnerable children hanging in the balance, policymakers are attempting to untangle the bureaucratic complexities of foster care. However, they are doing so without the benefit of even the most basic information, such as the number of children in foster care in every state. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 required that every state establish an information system to collect data on children in foster care, but the federal government did not specify what data had to be collected.

This study is the result of a two-year undertaking by the Institute for Children to gather accurate data on three of the most pressing questions in child welfare: (1) How many children are in foster care? (2) How many of these children are legally free to be adopted? (3) How well are the states doing at finding adoptive homes for children? Among the findings:

  • As of the close of fiscal 1996, 526,112 children were in state-run substitute care.
  • Although 22,491 children were adopted from foster care last year, another 53,642 - one in 10 foster children - were legally free for adoption but still in state care at year-end.
  • Even in the six states with the highest number of foster child adoptions, there were more children awaiting adoptions at the beginning of 1997 than had been placed for adoption during the entire 1996 fiscal year.

The failures of the current system are costly in more ways than one. The nation will spend more than $12 billion on public agency child welfare this year. There are also indirect social costs that can extend for years after a child leaves the system. For example, foster children who turn age 18 in care are overrepresented among welfare recipients, prison inmates and the homeless.

While about two-thirds of children in foster care eventually return to their biological families, thousands of others become legally free for adoption when the rights of their biological parents are terminated by a court. Why are states not doing a better job at placing them in new families? One reason may be that public foster care agencies are driven by reverse financial incentives. The federal government reimburses states for foster care costs based on the number of children in foster care per day. There are no financial incentives to move children out of foster care. Further, the federal government does not require states to actively seek adoptive homes for all free-to-be-adopted children. As a result, they are all too often assigned instead to a series of foster homes, group homes or institutions, or enrolled in the federally funded Independent Living Program (where they are supposed to be taught how to live on their own).

Is it possible that there are too few families willing to adopt foster children? The evidence suggests otherwise. In the private sector, adoption is flourishing. Not including adoptions by relatives, an estimated 60,000 children will be adopted this year, with the majority placed through private adoption agencies and independent attorneys. By everyone's reckoning, demand exceeds supply. While detractors often claim that Americans are interested only in adopting healthy white babies, a national survey commissioned by the Institute for Children found that 71 percent of Americans, if adopting, would be willing to adopt a foster child.

Both federal and state governments must reduce the barriers to adoption of foster children through private agencies. Further, the system must reward efforts to increase adoptions and penalize laggard performance.

  • At both the federal and state levels, the goal should be a 12-month maximum stay in foster care before the child is either reunified with the biological family or adopted.
  • The loosely used and overused term "special needs" must be redefined to mean only children with physical or other types of handicaps that would either require ongoing medical attention or otherwise result in increased cost to adoptive families.
  • States should be required to report publicly each year the number of foster children in state care, the number free to be adopted but not in pre-adoptive placements and the number of state-approved adoptive families who have been recruited and are seeking to adopt.
  • The federal government should base payments to the states on the tangible outcomes listed above rather than on program growth.

Creating a workable adoption system for foster children is possible. The key components are already in place. Private, community-based organizations are providing foster and adoptive parent recruitment and support. Businesses are contributing time, talent and treasure to promote adoption. Individuals are spearheading efforts to assist children through mentoring programs for foster teens. Combined with needed public policy reforms, these private endeavors can create a more efficient and more humane system for America's foster children.


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