The new federal foster care statistics were released by the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF) on November 8. Sifting through the myriad of acronyms, technical jargon, and slew of numbers can make your head spin. Here are a few things that you should know about the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) annual report.

1.)  The number of children placed in foster care has increased.

For the fifth year in a row, the number of children in foster care has risen by more than 6,400 children since last fiscal year to 442,995. Data suggests that much of the recent increase of children entering foster care is attributed to the growing opioid crisis affecting families across the U.S. According to the ACF, there are 15 categories that are associated with removing children from their homes and placing them in foster care. Of these 15 categories, opioid use by parent or guardian has seen the largest increase. Thirty-six percent, or around 96,700 children, were removed from their homes due to parental drug abuse issues.

Lynn Johnson, HHS assistant secretary for children and families said that in order “to improve the well-being of children affected by substance abuse, [the HHS] has designed programs that specifically work with families to help with early intervention, family engagement, and trauma-informed services… for caregivers and parents dealing with substance use disorders.” The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) was signed in February 2018 and includes “substance use treatment, in-home parenting skill training, and mental health services for children and families who are at risk of entering the child welfare system. The new law also focuses on reducing the placement of children in group homes and in congregate care.” Ms. Johnson stated that “this collaborative work with state and local child welfare agencies, substance abuse treatment agencies, and courts helps [to] deliver these essential services to children and families with the goal of decreasing the number of children having to enter care.”

Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner at the Children’s Bureau and Acting Commissioner for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, said, “We are very happy that the rate of increase in the number of children in foster care is less than the prior year, and hope this is attributable to a greater focus on primary prevention of child maltreatment….Our goal is to keep families together and, when foster care placement is absolutely necessary, to reunify children back to safe and loving family conditions whenever possible. We can do this by addressing underlying behavioral and social issues through preventive and in-home services so children do not have to enter into care and become separated from their families.”

2.)  The number of children waiting to be adopted from foster care has increased. Adoption from foster care has also increased.

It is important to remember that the ultimate goal of foster care is the reunification with the child’s biological family. Though the goal is noble, it is not always in the best interests of the child, and the parental rights may need to be terminated. The Adoption Council said that the number of children in foster care awaiting adoption increased to 123,437, reaching a record nine-year high. Though 2017 saw more foster children becoming available for adoption, it also saw more children actually being adopted from foster care (59,430 children to be exact) than in the history of the AFCARS report. However, adoption from foster care is not keeping pace with the admissions into foster care.

National Council for Adoption (NCFA) estimates that for every one child adopted, there are two left waiting. NCFA vice-president Ryan Hanlon says, “The most recent AFCARS report is a stark reminder of the work those of us in child welfare have before us. Finding families for over 123,000 children and youth waiting on adoption is a challenging but achievable goal. We are grateful to the nearly 60,000 families who welcomed a child into their homes last year, and we encourage those who are considering adoption to take the first step and connect with a public agency in their state.”

3.)  The number of licensed foster families has declined.

While the growing number of admissions into foster care has increased, the number of licensed foster families has declined. The NFCA has discovered that over half of foster families quit fostering within the first year, with many states seeing another double-digit percentage decrease in year two. “These low retention rates mean fewer qualified foster families are available, result in the all-too-common practice of children transitioning more frequently between foster families, and require states to invest limited resources into the recruitment of new foster families. If states could improve retention rates of families, it would result in a more stable foster care experience for the child, a substantial savings of fiscal dollars, and dramatically increase the chances that the child will be adopted by the foster family, should adoption be the final case goal. (For reference, in FY 2017, 51% of adopted children were adopted by their foster parents).”

4.) The number of children becoming emancipated from the foster system is staggering.

“One of the tragic outcomes from this year’s AFCARS report is that 19,945 youth were emancipated from the child welfare system last year without family reunification or being adopted,” says NCFA’s president and CEO Chuck Johnson. “The youth who exit foster care without permanency are denied the protections that come from being a part of family, impacting their education, housing, involvement with the criminal justice system, and much more.”

Every child who ages out of the foster system without a family reunification or forever family is one too many; however, the NCFA reports that the number of instances of emancipation have dropped yearly since 2007 and is currently at a 16 year low. The partnership between states and agencies has helped those young people who are about to age out of the system to enter adulthood with some form of support system.