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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.

When does the state intervene and place children in foster care?

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.[1] 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.

How often are kids abused 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.

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How do children fare in foster care and beyond?

When it comes to their well-being, it is reported that up to 80% of foster children have significant mental health issues, compared to the national average of 20%.

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.

How do kids leave foster care?

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.

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Each jurisdiction counts a child only once for each year, even if they exited, re-entered, and exited again during the year.

Can kids remain in foster care past age 18?

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.

See the data: Trends in foster care and adoption

Trends in foster care and adoption, FY 2012 – FY 2021
Year Served In care Sep 30 Entered Exited Waiting for adoption Parental rights terminated Adopted
2012 630,000 392,000 250,000 238,000 99,600 58,400 52,000
2013 633,000 396,000 253,000 237,000 102,000 58,900 50,800
2014 646,000 411,000 264,000 235,000 106,000 61,200 50,700
2015 663,000 421,000 269,000 242,000 110,000 62,200 53,500
2016 680,000 430,000 273,000 250,000 117,000 65,500 57,200
2017 685,000 437,000 270,000 249,000 124,000 69,900 59,500
2018 690,000 437,000 264,000 252,000 127,000 72,000 63,100
2019 676,000 426,000 252,000 250,000 124,000 71,900 66,200
2020 632,000 407,000 217,000 224,000 117,000 63,800 57,900
2021 606,000 391,000 207,000 215,000 114,000 65,000 54,200
Trends in Foster Care and Adoption: FY 2012 – 2021
Last updated
November 1, 2022
Child Maltreatment 2021
Placement of Children With Relatives
National Foster Care Month 2023: Key Facts and Statistics
Reunification: Bringing Your Children Home From Foster Care
Extension of Foster Care Beyond Age 18
Child and Adolescent Mental Health
Brief: Mental Health and Foster Care
Last updated
November 1, 2019
Profile of Prison Inmates, 2016
[1]

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.