Foster Care Explained: What It Is, How It Works and How It Can Be Improved
This post explores what foster care is, how it works and how we can improve the nation’s foster care system to help support better outcomes for children and young people.
What Is Foster Care?
Foster care is a temporary living situation for kids whose parents cannot take care of them and whose need for care has come to the attention of child welfare agency staff. While in foster care, children may live with relatives, foster families or in group facilities. Nearly half of kids who enter the foster care system will return to their parent or primary caretaker.
Why Are Kids in Foster Care?
Children enter foster care because they or their families are in crisis. Oftentimes, these children — who range in age from newborns to teens — have experienced unsafe conditions, abuse, neglect or have parents who are unable to care for them. As a result, these children are removed from their parents’ care.
The absence of family, familiar surroundings and predictable next steps are some of the greatest hardships that kids in foster care face. Fortunately, by law, children in care are supposed to maintain contact with family — including their parents and siblings — via regular visits. Listening to young people in care is a critical strategy for agencies looking to improve child welfare experiences and outcomes in foster care.
What Is the Goal of Foster Care?
A key goal of foster care is to ensure that kids are living in stable, lifelong families. Foster care is meant to be a temporary solution that ends once a parent can get their life back on track or a relative, guardian or adoptive family agrees to raise the child involved.
Research has shown — again and again — that every child needs a solid and unshakable attachment to at least one parenting adult and that this relationship is key to a young person’s development and well-being.
How Do Kids End up in Foster Care? Who Decides That a Child Needs to be in Foster Care?
Children often come to the attention of a child welfare agency via reports of child abuse or neglect. Social workers investigate the allegations involved and — if a child’s current living situation is deemed unsafe — the agency must obtain a judge’s approval to remove the child in question from their current living situation.
There were nearly 615,000 confirmed victims of maltreatment in 2020 (8 in every 1,000 children). Most of these victims were young children up to age 10 (72%) and experienced neglect (76%). Not every child who experiences maltreatment enters foster care. In fact, nearly 207,000 children entered care in 2021, a figure that has been declining in recent years.
Caseworkers are responsible for the safety and needs of children in foster care. This work can include keeping kids in school, obtaining medical care and maintaining their connections with family. Caseworkers are also responsible for securing stable, long-term family situations for kids in care as soon as possible. Judges oversee this process.
This focus on finding permanence is supported by federal laws that promote the need for kids to grow up in families who will always be there for them. Child welfare agencies and judges, as part of the decision-making process, should engage children, their parents and other adults in planning for permanence for kids in foster care.
Foster Care Statistics
The Annie E. Casey Foundation provides detailed foster care statistics via the KIDS COUNT® Data Center. This information helps policymakers, practitioners, advocates and other stakeholders make better decisions and achieve better outcomes for children and youth in care.
How Many Children Are in Foster Care?
In 2021, an estimated 391,641 children and youth were in foster care. About one-third (35%) of these children lived with relatives. At any given time, there are slightly more boys than girls in foster care.
How Many Babies Are in Foster Care?
Nationally, 7% of children in foster care are babies, and this statistic has held relatively steady since 2005. The largest age group — children ages 1 to 5 — represent one-third of all kids in care.
At the state level, the share of babies in care is fairly close to the national average in most cases, although seven states have figures of 10% or more, with the highest share (12%) in Delaware in 2021 .
How Many Older Kids Are in Foster Care?
In 2021, more than 40% of kids in foster care were between the ages of 6 to 15 and 14% were between the ages of 16 to 20. Adolescence is a critical phase of child development. Young people need stability, which is why support services for youth in foster care are especially important. Yet, when compared to their younger peers, older youth tend to spend more time in foster care and experience greater instability in their foster placements.
How Long do Kids Stay in Foster Care?
In 2021, the average length of stay in foster care spanned nearly 22 months, an increase from previous years. About two-thirds of kids in care stay less than two years. In September 2021, just 6% of the kids in care — about 23,500 children total — had been in the foster care system for five years or more.
A number of factors influence how long kids spends in care. Considerations include a child’s well-being, family circumstances and the existence of policies, programs and services — at the local, state and federal levels — that support reunifying kids with their families.
How Does Race Impact Who Enters Foster Care?
In the United States, local and state agencies manage child welfare issues and foster care cases. This approach likely contributes to the significantly different experiences that kids and families in foster care have nationwide.
Across the country, some broad trends have emerged. For instance: children of color are overrepresented in foster care. In 2021, Black children represented 22% of kids in foster care but just 14% of kids overall. American Indian and Alaska Native children represented 2% of kids in care and 1% of kids overall. At the same time, white children made up 43% of kids in foster care despite accounting for 49% of the child population.
Common Questions About Foster Care
What Is a Foster Parent? What Do Foster Parents Do?
Foster parents are adults who temporarily step in to raise children who have been abused or neglected or whose biological parents are unable to care for them. Foster parents try to give each child in their care as much normalcy as possible while also preparing them to be reunited with family or adopted. Foster parents, also called resource parents, are state licensed and trained. They are sometimes — but not always — related to the children in their care.
How Does a Group Home Compare to a Foster Home?
Some children in foster care live in a group home — sometimes called congregate care — instead of living with families. In this arrangement, staff members work in shifts to care for a group of children living together in a shelter, residential treatment center or similar shared setting.
While quality residential settings are key features of any child welfare system, sometimes too many children are unnecessarily placed in group settings, sparking reform efforts at the state, local and federal levels.
A federal law — the Family First Prevention Services Act, passed in 2018 — aimed to restructure how child welfare funds are spent. This law has increased support for foster care prevention and keeping children living in families while reducing funding for clinically unnecessary group placements.
What Happens When Kids Leave Foster Care?
In recent years, slightly less than 50% of children who leave foster care return to their parents or a previous caregiver. In each of the last four years on record — 2018 and 2021 — at least one in four children were adopted out of foster care and around one in six children exited foster care to live with a relative or guardian.
Fortunately, the majority of children who leave foster care do not return to it. For example: Just 19.4% of children entering the foster care system in 2019 had been in care before, according to data reported by the Administration for Children and Families.
When kids “age out” of foster care — which is the fate of about 20,000 young people annually, though this is declining — they often lack the support and connections needed to thrive in adulthood. Emancipated youth are more likely to report being homeless and jobless when compared to peers who have achieved permanence. They are also more likely to experience incarceration and early parenthood.
A Longstanding Commitment to Improving Foster Care for Kids
Casey Foundation Initiatives and Investments
Over the years, the Casey Foundation has invested in improving the nation’s child welfare system and, in particular, foster care. Key investments in this area include:
- Casey’s Child Welfare Strategy Group helps child welfare agencies, practitioners and policymakers do better by children and families who experience foster care.
- Casey’s Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative® works at the local, state and national levels to advance policies and practices that effectively meet the needs of young people transitioning from foster care to adulthood.
- Casebook, an innovative information technology system, focuses on results for families while providing hands-on help for caseworkers and supervisors.
- The CHAMPS campaign spurs policy improvements at the state and national levels to provide children and youth in foster care with the highest quality parenting.
- Youth Transition Funders Group supports the well-being and economic success of vulnerable young people ages 14 to 25.
- SPARC, a state policy advocacy and reform center, aims to strengthen connections between state child welfare advocates and provide resources to enhance their efforts.
The Foundation has also amassed a trove of lessons from past child welfare initiatives, such as Family to Family and Casey Family Services.
More Foster Care Resources From the Casey Foundation
The Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Center offers 60+ measures of child welfare, customizable by state and demographic group, as well as a summary of national trends.
Much of the data on this site is derived from the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System and the National Youth in Transition Database.
Check out Casey’s collection of foster care resources and sign up for the Child Welfare newsletter to stay current on foster care data, updates and news.