The number of children in foster care grew during the past three years, rising to nearly 428,000 kids in 2015, up from 397,000 in 2012. The story behind the numbers is complex, but experts suggest that three factors account for much of the increase:
- more parents are struggling with opioids and other drugs;
- more judges have reservations about juvenile justice facilities and make referrals to child welfare instead; and
- many child welfare agencies are grappling with inadequate decision-making practices.
“In Casey’s work across the country, we see that child welfare agencies are under pressure to help children and parents when drugs are involved,” says Tracey Feild, managing director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Child Welfare Strategy Group. “But successful approaches exist and can be implemented. Does your community have evidence-informed practices? Are they funded and readily available? These are the questions communities need to be asking.”
Feild explains the role of judges in rising foster care numbers. “As more judges understand the harm that juvenile justice facilities can do to children, more are ordering children to child welfare placements instead.” There can be some benefits to that choice, she says, although she points out that serving the needs of those children often is not a strength of child welfare agencies. She proposes an alternative. “Whenever possible, we believe communities should be investing in diversion programs — programs that meet kids’ needs for mental or behavioral services or provide help with family conflict resolution while kids and teens live at home, rather than in foster care or group placements.”
In addition, child welfare agencies can improve decision making to ensure that only children or teens whose safety is at risk are brought into foster care. Two key approaches can help child welfare systems make better decisions about child safety:
- Improve how decisions are made at the front-end of the child welfare system. A recent study finds that nearly four in 10 kids are involved in maltreatment investigations by the time they are 18. “We have to get better at investigating and substantiating child welfare investigations,” Feild says, noting that Casey’s On The Frontline work is exploring how to do that.
- Include more people in agency decision making. “We have learned through our two decades of partnering with child welfare systems that child safety and well-being are improved when parents, kin and foster parents, and members of the community are involved in helping identify solutions and resources for a child,” Feild says. One way to do that is to implement Team Decision Making, a process that brings more people to the table to determine a families’ strengths and ability to meet a child’s safety needs. Other approaches involve boosting agencies’ support for and engagement with kin and foster caregivers who want the best for kids in their care.
“We face today the same struggle that has dogged the field for decades: Ensuring that you leave at home kids who are safe and bring into foster care those kids who are not. However simple that sounds in theory, it is extremely difficult in practice,” Feild says. “As the number of kids in care continues to climb, we must redouble our efforts to help agencies implement effective approaches to meeting kids’ needs at home or, if being removed from home is a possibility, involving in decision making those who can identify a child’s best interests. When nearly four in 10 children encounter the child welfare system from birth to age 18, it is important to get this right.”