The US foster care system is set up to help states provide a stable environment for children who can't safely remain in their homes due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. In 2021, an estimated 606,031 children passed through the US foster care system, with 391,098 living with foster families on a single day.
Foster care includes placing children in a family foster home where the foster parent is a relative or nonrelative, group home, emergency shelter, residential facility, or child care institution.
To receive federal funding, states must give preference to placing children in the home of relatives, if that relative meets the state’s child protection standards. This maintains important family and cultural bonds and can minimize trauma to the child.
Each state uses its own definition of child abuse and neglect based on standards set by federal law, which defines child abuse and neglect as, at a minimum, “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”
As spelled out in its annual Child Maltreatment report, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says a child can be removed from their home and placed in state care if an investigation finds the child to be a victim of abuse or neglect or if they are at risk of becoming a victim.
Additionally, children categorized as “nonvictims” of maltreatment may also be removed from their homes. For example, if one child is deemed to be a victim, the state may remove all of the children in that household to ensure their safety. Those children would be considered nonvictims. Another reason nonvictims may still be removed is because a parent voluntarily agrees to place them in foster care.
The report details all categories of child maltreatment, including abuse that wouldn’t warrant a child being removed from their home. The latest edition, from 2021, estimated that there were 600,000 victims of maltreatment. This includes abuse perpetrated by parents or guardians and abuse perpetrated by others such as neighbors, daycare providers, or relatives. Based on data from 48 states, 113,324 victims (20.2%) and 43,252 nonvictims (1.6%) were removed from their homes and placed in foster care.
According to the 2021 Child Maltreatment report, less than 1% (0.3%) of abused and neglected children were harmed by their foster parents.
Comparatively, 90.6% of children were abused or neglected by parents, 5.6% by relatives, and 3.3% by an unmarried partner of a parent.
Adults who were once in foster care experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at a rate nearly five times higher than the general adult population.
HHS reports that foster children “are far more likely than their peers to receive psychotropic medications, which carry a high risk of side effects” to cope with complex trauma.
According to the Department of Justice, 18% of state prisoners have lived in a foster home or institution at some point while growing up.
Federal law requires states to establish a “permanency plan” for each foster child, including reunification, kinship care, or adoption. This plan includes tasks that must be completed for a child to return home. Caseworkers partner with families to establish a plan and to help them meet their goals. However, if a child remains in foster care for 15 out of 22 months, parental rights may be terminated.
In 2021, about 215,000 kids left the foster care system. Most kids (three in five, according to HHS) will be reunited with their parents or other family members. Additionally, 54,200 kids were adopted from foster care, while 114,000 were waiting to be adopted at the end of the fiscal year.
Each jurisdiction counts a child only once for each year, even if they exited, re-entered, and exited again during the year.
Kids who turn 18 while in foster care can continue receiving support in some cases. A 2008 federal law gave states the option to allow young adults to remain in foster care past the age of 18, provided they are in school, enrolled in an employment program, working, or incapable of school or work due to a medical condition.
In approximately 48 states, Washington, DC, and American Samoa, foster kids who turn 18 while in care are allowed to extend their placement and continue receiving services. According to HHS, as of March 2022, every state except for Oregon and Utah offers continued foster care. (Oregon and Utah do, however, provide support services to former foster youth until age 21.)
As of September 30, 2021, there were 14,380 young adults ages 18–20 in foster care.
Learn more about foster care, including which states have the highest rate of foster kids. Get the facts every week by signing up for our newsletter.
To report suspected child abuse or neglect, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). Professional crisis counselors are available 24/7 days a week, in over 170 languages. All calls are confidential. For more information, visit www.childwelfare.gov.
|Year||Served||In care Sep 30||Entered||Exited||Waiting for adoption||Parental rights terminated||Adopted|
For FY 2021, 51 states reported 588,229 victims of child abuse and neglect. This equates to a national rate of 8.1 victims per 1,000 children in the population. HHS estimates for missing data, giving the figure of 600,000 victims of maltreatment.
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