Child Welfare and Foster Care Statistics

Updated April 7, 2024 | Posted May 16, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young Black boy on a swing being supported by an adult female with glasses and a ponytail.

Our nation’s child wel­fare sys­tem strives to pro­tect chil­dren from mal­treat­ment, sup­port fam­i­lies in cri­sis, keep chil­dren safe­ly with their par­ents when pos­si­ble, pro­vide tem­po­rary out-of-home care for chil­dren when need­ed and ulti­mate­ly ensure that chil­dren have safe, per­ma­nent homes with their fam­i­lies, rel­a­tives, adop­tive par­ents or legal guardians. This post pro­vides the lat­est sta­tis­tics on child wel­fare in the Unit­ed States, focus­ing on fos­ter care sta­tis­tics, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT® Data Cen­ter, a robust source of the best avail­able data on child well-being in the nation.

KIDS COUNT includes state-by-state data on child abuse and neglect and chil­dren liv­ing in out-of-home care from the Nation­al Child Abuse and Neglect Data Sys­tem, the fed­er­al Adop­tion and Fos­ter Care Analy­sis and Report­ing Sys­tem, and the Nation­al Youth in Tran­si­tion Data­base. These data help our Foun­da­tion and lead­ers across the coun­try to mon­i­tor trends, assess the child wel­fare sys­tem, and advance poli­cies and prac­tices to improve out­comes for chil­dren, youth and fam­i­lies — par­tic­u­lar­ly for chil­dren of col­or who are over­rep­re­sent­ed in the sys­tem and more like­ly to expe­ri­ence neg­a­tive outcomes.

Stay up to date with the lat­est infor­ma­tion on child wel­fare by sign­ing up for our newslet­ter and explor­ing our child wel­fare and fos­ter care resources

Child Wel­fare by the Numbers

KIDS COUNT offers more than 60 mea­sures of child wel­fare, encom­pass­ing how many chil­dren and youth are in the sys­tem, the rates at which they enter it, their demo­graph­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics (includ­ing race and eth­nic­i­ty when avail­able) and their expe­ri­ences in fos­ter care, exit­ing care, being adopt­ed when applic­a­ble, aging out of the sys­tem and more. In addi­tion to child wel­fare sta­tis­tics at the nation­al and state lev­els, KIDS COUNT also pro­vides data by ter­ri­to­ry, when pos­si­ble. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers, child wel­fare agen­cies and oth­ers have used these data for decades to under­stand how well the sys­tem is meet­ing the needs of vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren, youth and fam­i­lies, and how it can be strength­ened so that all abused and neglect­ed chil­dren can heal and grow up with safe, sta­ble families.

Sta­tis­tics on Emo­tion­al, Behav­ioral and Health Prob­lems Linked to Child Trauma

Chil­dren and youth who expe­ri­ence trau­ma, includ­ing abuse or neglect, are at increased risk for long-term emo­tion­al, behav­ioral and phys­i­cal health prob­lems, among oth­er chal­lenges. KIDS COUNT offers scores of addi­tion­al mea­sures that describe these types of life chal­lenges for chil­dren and youth, rang­ing from high-risk behav­ior, such as juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem involve­ment and sub­stance abuse, to dif­fi­cul­ties with men­tal health, phys­i­cal health and aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance. (These data are pro­vid­ed by state and race and eth­nic­i­ty, as well as oth­er break­downs, when pos­si­ble.) Impor­tant­ly, the con­se­quences of child mal­treat­ment can be mit­i­gat­ed with equi­table access to trau­ma-informed ser­vices and nur­tur­ing, last­ing fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships and support.

Child Mal­treat­ment Trends

The like­li­hood that a child will be abused or neglect­ed in the Unit­ed States has improved slight­ly in recent years: 8 in every 1,000 kids under 18 were con­firmed vic­tims of mal­treat­ment in 2020 and 2021, after hold­ing steady at 9 per 1,000 from 2015 to 2019. Of approx­i­mate­ly 585,000 vic­tims in 2021, three in four expe­ri­enced neglect, con­sis­tent­ly the most com­mon type of mal­treat­ment. About 1 in 6 (16%) of these chil­dren were phys­i­cal­ly abused, 10% were sex­u­al­ly abused, 6% were emo­tion­al­ly abused and 2% expe­ri­enced med­ical neglect. Young kids are the most at risk, as 70% of ver­i­fied vic­tims were 10 and under in 2021, sim­i­lar to pre­vi­ous years.

Fos­ter Care Statistics

Fos­ter care is meant to pro­vide safe, tem­po­rary liv­ing arrange­ments and sup­port ser­vices for chil­dren who have been removed from their fam­i­lies due to mal­treat­ment, lack of safe­ty or inad­e­quate care. The fol­low­ing selec­tion of fos­ter care sta­tis­tics from KIDS COUNT describes chil­dren who enter care, their demo­graph­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics, their liv­ing arrange­ments dur­ing fos­ter care, where they go when they exit care and the expe­ri­ences of youth who nev­er leave and age out of the sys­tem. These are crit­i­cal indi­ca­tors that can flag areas for sys­tem improve­ment, such as the dis­pro­por­tion­ate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of chil­dren of col­or and the need to bet­ter sup­port old­er youth in fos­ter care.

Learn more about the fos­ter care sys­tem in a recent Foun­da­tion blog post.

Chil­dren Enter­ing Fos­ter Care

In 2021, 203,770 chil­dren under 18 entered fos­ter care in the Unit­ed States, a rate of 3 per 1,000. The rate of entry has hov­ered at 3 or 4 per 1,000 for two decades. Kids ages 1 to 5 make up the largest share (29% in 2021) of chil­dren enter­ing care. Nation­al data also show that Black and Amer­i­can Indi­an and Alas­ka Native chil­dren con­tin­ue to be over­rep­re­sent­ed among those enter­ing fos­ter care. In 2021, Black chil­dren rep­re­sent­ed 20% of those enter­ing care but only 14% of the total child pop­u­la­tion, while Amer­i­can Indi­an and Alas­ka Native kids made up 2% of those enter­ing care and 1% of the child pop­u­la­tion. The rea­sons for this are com­plex, and efforts to improve racial equi­ty in child wel­fare have been under­way for many years.

Explore more sta­tis­tics on chil­dren enter­ing fos­ter care, includ­ing data by state:

Chil­dren in Fos­ter Care

Once chil­dren enter fos­ter care, the goal is to either safe­ly reuni­fy them with their par­ents if the fam­i­ly con­cerns are resolved or secure anoth­er per­ma­nent fam­i­ly. A total of 391,641 chil­dren and youth were liv­ing in fos­ter care in 2021, a fig­ure that has been declin­ing since 2017. One-third of these chil­dren are ages 1 to 5 and 7% babies, sim­i­lar to pre­vi­ous years. Con­sis­tent with the inequities described above, nation­al data on chil­dren in fos­ter care illus­trate the dis­pro­por­tion­ate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Black and Amer­i­can Indi­an and Alas­ka Native chil­dren, in particular.

Less than half (44% in 2021) of fos­ter chil­dren are placed with non­rel­a­tive fos­ter fam­i­lies, a slight decline from pri­or years. In encour­ag­ing news, place­ments with rel­a­tives increased from 25% to 35% dur­ing 20002021, while place­ments in group homes or oth­er facil­i­ties were cut in half, from 18% to 9%. Few­er chil­dren are placed in pre-adop­tive homes (4% in 2021) or have tri­al home vis­its (5%), and some old­er youth live inde­pen­dent­ly with super­vi­sion (2%).

Over a third of fos­ter chil­dren and youth expe­ri­ence more than two place­ments each year, mean­ing their liv­ing arrange­ments change at least three times a year. At the state lev­el in 2021, this fig­ure ranged from 24% to 51%. Child wel­fare agen­cies are work­ing to min­i­mize these moves, as they are dis­rup­tive, stress­ful and often trau­ma­tiz­ing. Sta­ble rela­tion­ships and home envi­ron­ments are crit­i­cal for healthy child and youth development.

Access all sta­tis­tics on chil­dren in fos­ter care, includ­ing data by state:

Sta­tis­tics on chil­dren in fos­ter care await­ing adoption:

Relat­ed sta­tis­tics on chil­dren in out-of-home care from KIDS COUNT:

Chil­dren Exit­ing Fos­ter Care

The lat­est data show that 214,542 chil­dren and youth exit­ed fos­ter care in 2021 and just under half (47%) were reunit­ed with their par­ent or pri­ma­ry care­tak­er, down from 57% in 2000. Adop­tions from fos­ter care have increased over the last two decades, from 17% of kids going to adop­tive homes in 2000 to 25% in 2021. Chil­dren exit­ing care to live with legal guardians also jumped from 3% to 12% in the same peri­od. Oth­er com­mon out­comes for chil­dren and youth who can­not return to their par­ents include liv­ing with oth­er rel­a­tives (6%) and eman­ci­pa­tion (9%), also known as aging out of fos­ter care.

Of the more than 54,000 kids adopt­ed out of the child wel­fare sys­tem in 2021, over half were young kids ages 1 to 5, con­sis­tent with pre­vi­ous years. Most of these adop­tions are by the fos­ter par­ents (either rel­a­tives or non-rel­a­tives), who cared for the chil­dren while in fos­ter care.

Explore all sta­tis­tics about young peo­ple exit­ing fos­ter care and those who have been adopted:

Key Find­ings From the Chil­dren’s Bureau on How Long Kids Stay in Fos­ter Care

The fed­er­al government’s Chil­dren’s Bureau pro­vides addi­tion­al fos­ter care sta­tis­tics, such as the length of time chil­dren spend in care. They report­ed that, unfor­tu­nate­ly, the medi­an amount of time in fos­ter care has increased over the last decade — from 13.2 months in 2011 to 17.5 months in 2021, based on chil­dren who exit­ed care in each year. How­ev­er, the per­cent­age of kids who spent 5+ years in care declined slight­ly from 7% to 5% in the same time peri­od. Among chil­dren who exit­ed fos­ter care in 2021, about a third (35%) were there less than a year, while near­ly half (48%) spent 1 to 3 years in care and 12% stayed in fos­ter care 3+ years. See the Child Wel­fare Infor­ma­tion Gate­way, a ser­vice of the Chil­dren’s Bureau, for addi­tion­al fos­ter care data summaries.

Youth Aging Out of Fos­ter Care

More than 19,000 youth left fos­ter care in 2021 with­out reunit­ing with their par­ents or hav­ing anoth­er per­ma­nent fam­i­ly home, a fig­ure that has declined since peak­ing at near­ly 30,000 in 2008. The tran­si­tion to adult­hood is a sig­nif­i­cant and chal­leng­ing devel­op­men­tal phase of life for all young peo­ple, but youth aging out of fos­ter care on their own must face this with­out the sup­port of a sta­ble, lov­ing fam­i­ly. Many also lose access to ser­vices and sup­ports offered through the fos­ter care sys­tem. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, these youth and young adults are more like­ly to expe­ri­ence behav­ioral, men­tal and phys­i­cal health issues, hous­ing prob­lems and home­less­ness, employ­ment and aca­d­e­m­ic dif­fi­cul­ties, ear­ly par­ent­hood, incar­cer­a­tion and oth­er poten­tial­ly life­long adver­si­ties. In line with the racial inequities not­ed ear­li­er, youth of col­or are more like­ly to expe­ri­ence these chal­lenges. The tra­jec­to­ries of these young peo­ple are not guar­an­teed, how­ev­er. They can be pos­i­tive­ly influ­enced by poli­cies and prac­tices that ensure these vul­ner­a­ble youths receive cul­­tur­al­­ly-respon­­sive, trau­­ma-informed tran­si­tion ser­vices and sup­port to nav­i­gate the steps to adult­hood, achieve sta­bil­i­ty and reach their full potential.

Rec­og­niz­ing the impor­tance of focus­ing on this pop­u­la­tion, the Foun­da­tion pro­vides in-depth resources on youth aging out of fos­ter care and 30 indi­ca­tors describ­ing the chal­lenges they face as well as the sup­port they receive, includ­ing aca­d­e­m­ic, employ­ment, health, finan­cial, men­tor­ing and oth­er tran­si­tion services.

Key find­ings among youth tran­si­tion­ing out of fos­ter care:

Oth­er Sta­tis­tics Linked to Child­hood Adver­si­ty and Trauma

When kids expe­ri­ence trau­ma — such as abuse, neglect or even hard­ships dur­ing fos­ter care — these events can dis­rupt healthy devel­op­ment and cause last­ing consequences.

KIDS COUNT offers an array of state-lev­el sta­tis­tics on these issues, with much of it avail­able by race and oth­er demo­graph­ic fac­tors. This includ­es data on:

KIDS COUNT offers a vast array of state-by-state sta­tis­tics on these issues, with much of it avail­able by race and oth­er demo­graph­ic fac­tors, includ­ing data on:

  • Safe­ty and risky behav­iors, such as youth resid­ing in juve­nile deten­tion facil­i­ties, and teens abus­ing alco­hol or using cig­a­rettes, mar­i­jua­na and oth­er drugs
  • Men­tal and phys­i­cal health, such as young adults feel­ing depressed or hope­less, and health con­di­tions (e.g., obe­si­ty, asth­ma and spe­cial health care needs)
  • Aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment and relat­ed issues; for exam­ple, test scores, house­hold inter­net access, school dis­ci­pline, stu­dents miss­ing school, stu­dents not com­plet­ing high school, teens nei­ther work­ing nor in school and much more 
  • Youth and young adult well-being, which spans 60 mea­sures in areas like employ­ment, pover­ty, edu­ca­tion, health, and fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty issues

Learn More About Child Wel­fare in the Unit­ed States

Reports and Resources on Child Wel­fare and Fos­ter Care

The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion has been pub­lish­ing resources and devel­op­ing new solu­tions to sup­port vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren and fam­i­lies for more than two decades. Resources like the fol­low­ing reports help child wel­fare agen­cies, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and advo­cates improve the child wel­fare system: 

Stay Con­nect­ed and Do a Deep Dive With Our Resources

Sign up for the Casey Foun­da­tion’s newslet­ter to get the lat­est reports, data and news on child wel­fare in the Unit­ed States, access KIDS COUNT data on child wel­fare and learn about pub­li­ca­tions, webi­na­rs, pod­casts, blog posts oth­er resources. Cov­ered top­ics include:

See over­all child pop­u­la­tion trends in the US with data from the 2020 census.

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