Headlines recently proclaimed that the number of American children in foster care has dropped for the sixth straight year, falling to about 400,000 compared to more than 520,000 a decade ago. Unfortunately, this much-repeated headline significantly understates the size of today's foster care population. The number in the news was a single day's count. Looking at the entire year, 646,000 children spent time in foster care.
Yes, there was still a decline in the foster care population: nearly 20 percent since 2002. But 646,000 is still too many kids. Way too many.
Since the recession began, our advocates have been concerned that, as in past recessions, the number of children coming into care would initially decrease, but for the wrong reasons -- a less capable child protection system would screen out all but the worst cases. Later, after financial stresses took their toll on families, the numbers would increase as kids who initially had been screened out start to show up with more serious problems.
The newly released figures raise some concern that this could happen. Last year was the first year in which entries into foster care exceeded exits since 2006 -- the year before the recession started.
Talk with older youth, and you'll hear that foster care often doesn't work well for them. So it would have been particularly satisfying to learn that a larger percentage of foster youth are being reunited with their parents. But no such luck. The data show that the proportion of foster children reunited with their parents has barely changed since 2006, declining from 53 percent to 52 percent.
And what age group had the most youth in care? Seventeen-year-olds. In fact, 28,432 youth ages 16 to 21 entered the system in 2011.What will happen to them? They are too often surrendered to the world after age 18 unprepared to live without a permanent, legal family connection. The numbers speak loudly here. Fewer than two percent of foster youth over 17 were adopted in 2011, while 26,286 youth had to leave foster care because they were too old to stay. This trend, too, hasn't improved. Eleven percent of youth aged out in 2011, up from 9 percent in 2006.
Don't let the headlines lull you into believing foster care has entered some bright new age. Now more than ever, foster youth need advocates willing to tell the truth about what is happening. Because what is happening is that too many kids are living for too long without a permanent family and a fair start in the world.