Foster Care Explained: What It Is, How It Works and How It Can Be Improved

Updated on May 20, 2022, and originally posted February 6, 2014, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation

A male youth looks intently at a woman, both are seated.

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.

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