Child Welfare and Foster Care Statistics
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.
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 0 to 17 entering foster care (number and rate)
- Children and youth of all ages entering foster care (number only)
- Children entering foster care by age group
- Children entering foster care by gender
- Children entering foster care by race and ethnicity
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 2000–2021, 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:
- Children birth to 17 in foster care (number and rate)
- Children and youth of all ages in foster care (number only)
- Children in foster care by age group
- Children in foster care by race and ethnicity
- Children in foster care by gender
- Children in foster care by placement type
- Children in foster care with more than two placements
Statistics on children in foster care awaiting adoption:
Related statistics on children in out-of-home care from KIDS COUNT:
- Children in kinship care (What is kinship care?)
- Children in the care of grandparents
- Children living with neither parent
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:
- Children exiting foster care
- Children in the child welfare system 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:
- One in five report experiencing homelessness between ages 17 and 19, and over one in four (29%) report being homeless from 19 to 21. Among American Indian and Alaska Native young adults, the figure jumps to almost half (43%) for ages 19 to 21.
- One in five report being incarcerated between ages 17 to 19 as well as ages 19 to 21. See data by state and race and ethnicity.
- One in 10 report becoming a parent between ages 17 to 19 while nearly one in four (23%) say they became parents between ages 19 to 21.
- By age 21, over two-thirds (70%) have a high school diploma or equivalent. The same is true for 64% of American Indian and Alaska Native and 78% of Asian American young adults.
- Just 57% report being employed (full- or part-time) at age 21, with this figure ranging from 51% for American Indian and Alaska Native young adults to 63% for Asian Americans.
- From 2015 to 2018, youth ages 14 and older became less likely to access transition services — of all types — offered via the federal John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. In 2018, 40% of young people received academic support, 16% received mentoring support and 15% received education financial assistance. KIDS COUNT tracks 11 measures for each service received by race and ethnicity (scroll down).
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:
- Thriving Families, Safer Children: This article describes a first-of-its-kind national effort supported by the Foundation and other partners to rethink state and local child welfare systems. The effort uses a public health framework to advance approaches that create conditions for strong, thriving families.
- Integrating Positive Youth Development and Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Approaches Across the Child Welfare and Justice Systems: Developed in collaboration with Child Trends and Child Focus, this report includes the STRENGTH framework, which builds on young adults’ assets, addresses their developmental needs and resource introduces a framework that builds on young adults’ assets, addresses their developmental needs and advances community-based solutions that reduce or avoid family separations.
- Six Strategies for Keeping Families Supported, Connected and Safe: This brief shares six pivotal strategies for coordinating and funding community efforts to support families at risk of entering the child welfare system.
- Mecklenburg County: Remaking a Child Welfare System: This report looks at reform efforts in one North Carolina county and explores how local child welfare leaders adopted changes aimed at keeping more families together safely while improving the well-being of children and youth.
- From COVID-19 Response to Comprehensive Change: This piece This brief highlights historical federal child welfare policy achievements and urges policymakers to champion new reforms that promote lasting benefits for all young people in and transitioning from foster care.
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- Foster care
- Child welfare
- Child protection
- Family First Prevention Services Act
- Kinship care
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