Fewer children in foster care, but too few find families

April was National Child Abuse Awareness Month, and May is National Foster Care Month. Of course for children in difficult situations or in limbo, the month doesn't make a difference. For too many children in foster care, a permanent home with a family they can call their own is a distant dream. And the longer children remain in foster care, the less likely they are to reunite with their original family.

The good news is that in D.C. and across the country, the number of children in foster care is decreasing. In D.C. in 2010, the number of children and youth (under 22) in foster care decreased for the third year in a row to 2,092, according to D.C. Child and Family Services data reported by D.C. KIDS COUNT. As recently as 2003, the number was 2,945. Hopefully these numbers are an indication that interventions by social workers and others have helped families resolve their issues and remain intact, which is often in the children’s best interest.

But we have a long way to go to ensure that children in foster care are placed in safe, nurturing homes. Being placed with relatives or other familiar caregivers reduces the trauma children experience from being removed from their parental homes. And while nearly all states have policies that explicitly give preference to relatives, the children of D.C. seem to continue to move from non-relative foster home to foster-home.

According to data from the national Adoption and Foster Care reporting system (AFCARS), 2,066 children and youth in D.C. were in foster care in 2009. Of those children, only 16% were placed in “kin” care—with a relative -- 46% were placed in foster families with a non-relative, and 14%  were in a group home or institution.

The majority of children and youth in foster care continue to bounce around the system. For children who had been in the foster care system for two years or more, 78% changed placements three or more times in 2009 alone! (Source: US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Click here to view table.)

Neglect is the number one reason for entry into the foster care system in D.C. Placement with a non-relative family makes it harder for children to understand what it means to be a part of a supportive family and to develop and maintain connections with people important to them.

As spring turns into summer, we hope you will be inspired to think of ways to show children in foster care that they matter and they are loved. Check out our partner Children's Law Center's website to learn more and find opportunities to volunteer.