The number of U.S. children in foster care has dropped 8 percent in just one year, and more than 20 percent in the past decade, according to new federal figures underscoring the impact of widespread reforms.
The drop, hailed by child-welfare advocates, is due largely to a shift in the policies and practices of state and county child welfare agencies. Many have been shortening stays in foster care, speeding up adoptions and expanding preventive support for troubled families so more children avoid being removed from their homes in the first place.
The new figures, released Tuesday by the Department of Health and Human Services, show there were 423,773 children in foster care as of Sept. 30. That's down from 460,416 a year earlier and from more than 540,000 a decade ago.
California had the biggest one-year drop — from 67,703 to 60,198. Just eight years ago, the state had more than 90,000 children in foster care.
Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania are among other major states that have lowered their numbers sharply over the decade.
"It's extraordinary," said Terri Braxton, a vice president of the Child Welfare League of America. "There's been a major focus on foster-care awareness, on new legislative policies, and it's heartening to see that these efforts are finally paying off."
Though many of the initiatives are at the state level, Braxton said the trend had been aided by a federal law, the 2008 Fostering Connections Act. It allows use of federal funds to assist children who leave foster care to live with relatives other than their parents — an arrangement which in the past was generally not eligible for federal aid.
Braxton said many challenges remain, including dealing with the increasing number of foster youths aging out of the system without a permanent family. The number of such youths rose from 19,000 in 1999 to a record high of nearly 30,000 in 2008.
Kathi Crowe, executive director of the National Foster Care Coalition, said a key factor behind the lower foster care numbers was the greater emphasis on preventive services, so fewer children needed to be removed from their homes.
"And in cases where they are removed, there's now a real priority to provide the kids with permanent homes so they don't languish in the system any longer than they need to," she said. "All those things combined — it's all good news for kids."
Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, which seeks to reduce the number of children unnecessarily placed in foster care, said he was encouraged by the lower number of children taken from their parents in the first place.
Overall, entries into the system were down 6.5 percent for one year, and down 17 percent since they peaked in 2005, he said.
"This is one more indication that, at long last, the politics of child welfare is catching up with reality," Wexler said in an e-mail. "The proportion of children deemed 'substantiated' victims of child abuse in this country peaked in 1993 — it's never been as high since. Yet for more than a decade afterward, states kept taking away more and more children."
"Now, finally, it's sinking in that most cases labeled 'neglect' — the single largest category of maltreatment — are really poverty, and it makes more sense to try to deal with the poverty than destroy the family," Wexler wrote.
Wexler also said that several heartland states — including Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and the Dakotas — were continuing to take children into foster care at relatively high rates.
"The gap between these states and best practice has grown," he said.
The new data was contained in the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System report released annually by HHS's Administration for Children and Families.
The average length of stay in foster care has been reduced by more than 10 percent since 2002, according to the report — the mean stay is now 26.7 months.
Of the 423,773 kids in foster care on Sept. 30, 53 percent were boys. Twenty percent were Hispanic, 30 percent black and 40 percent white; 114,556 of them were available for adoption.