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Foster Care in America: Realities, Challenges and Solutions

Foster care in America

On any given day, nearly 428,000 U.S. children are in foster care. They range from infants to 18 years old, and even up to 21 years old in the states that have extended foster care. The average age of a child in foster care is 9 years old, and there are slightly more boys than girls. The median amount of time that a child is in foster care is just over a year. More than half of these children will be safely reunified with their parents or primary caregivers, and nearly one-quarter will be adopted, many by their foster parents. Over 20,000 youth leave the foster care system each year because they have not yet been safely reunited with their families or adopted, and are too old to remain in state custody. Many states offer independent living services to help these youth transition to adulthood.

Rising number of children in foster care

According to a 2017 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report, the number of children in the foster care system nationally has increased for the fourth year in a row. A similar report last year stated, “Nearly three quarters (71%) of U.S. states have reported an increase in the numbers of children entering foster care from 2014-15.”

Why the increase?
Most government agencies and journalists attribute the rise, in part, to increased parental substance abuse. Of the 15 categories states can report for the circumstances associated with a child’s removal from home and placement into care, drug abuse by a parent had the largest percentage point increase. Neglect as a circumstance around removal has also been increasing.

“The continued trend of parental substance abuse is very concerning, especially when it means children must enter foster care as a result,” says Steven Wagner, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary at the Administration for Children and Families. “The seriousness of parental substance abuse, including the abuse of opioids, is an issue we at HHS will be addressing through prevention, treatment and recovery-support measures.”

More resources needed

Access to substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, safety net supports, and other community resources is on the decline in many communities, making it difficult for families to get the help they need.

In addition to the challenges that are driving an increase in demand for child and family services is another growing problem: there is a well-documented national social worker shortage. Particularly in rural areas, this can lead to higher caseloads for child welfare workers, higher burnout and turnover, and decreased quality of services for children and families.

States are also struggling to recruit, train and retain enough foster families to care for the increasing number of children entering state custody. This shortage of foster families can sometimes result in children having to move homes, change schools, be separated from their family and siblings, and in some cases, live in group care settings which are best reserved for youth psychiatric treatment rather than a living situation.

Get involved

Families experiencing crisis need our help. You can help strengthen families, support children who have experienced trauma and make a positive impact in your community in the following ways:

  • Become a foster parent
    Foster parents play an important role in supporting children and families during a difficult time in their lives. If you can provide care and unconditional love to children and teens, work in partnership with birth family members and child welfare professionals, and complete ongoing education requirements, you could be a great foster parent. Learn more about becoming a foster parent in KansasNebraskaKentucky or West Virginia. 
  • Pursue a career in social work
    Social work is a helping profession and a very diverse field encompassing many different kinds of professionals who all serve people in need. Read about 5 Reasons to Pursue a Career in Social Work or browse our open positions on our careers page. 
  • Donate or sponsor a fundraising event
    Some children enter foster care with few or no belongings. We gladly accept donations of clothing, activity books, toys, stuffed animals and personal hygiene items to place in welcome boxes for children to take to their new foster home or occupy their time while waiting to be matched with a family. We also recruit donors to participate in our Back-To-School Supply Drive and Holiday Heroes program. KVC also hosts three major fundraising events each year: The KVC Hero Luncheon, The KVC Kids Classic Golf Tournament, and The KVC Gala at the Station. Corporate sponsors help underwrite many of our services and enable us to provide much-needed training to our clients. 
  • Educate and advocate
    Stay informed about what’s happening with the U.S. child welfare system and advocate for prevention efforts that strengthen families in your local community. Follow your state’s government agency responsible for providing child welfare services, and follow KVC’s blog and social media channels. We regularly post articles, highlight success stories and share free resources about child welfare and behavioral healthcare. Inform others about the challenges families are facing, and rally them to get involved and make a positive impact in their community.

Browse our website to learn more about foster care and find out how to become a foster parent.

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