Child Welfare and Foster Care Statistics
Posted May 16, 2022, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Our nation’s child welfare system strives to protect children from maltreatment, support families in crisis, keep children safely with their parents when possible, provide temporary out-of-home care for children when needed and ultimately ensure that children have safe, permanent homes with their families, relatives, adoptive parents or legal guardians. This post provides the latest statistics on child welfare in the United States, focusing on foster care statistics, from the Foundation’s KIDS COUNT® Data Center , a robust source of the best available data on child well-being in the nation. KIDS COUNT includes state-by-state data on child abuse and neglect and children living in out-of-home care from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, and the National Youth in Transition Database. These data help our Foundation and leaders across the country to monitor trends, assess the child welfare system, and advance policies and practices to improve outcomes for children, youth and families — particularly for children of color who are overrepresented in the system and more likely to experience negative outcomes.
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Child Welfare by the Numbers
KIDS COUNT offers more than 60 measures of child welfare , encompassing how many children and youth are in the system, the rates at which they enter it, their demographic characteristics (including race and ethnicity when available) and their experiences in foster care, exiting care, being adopted when applicable, aging out of the system and more. In addition to child welfare statistics at the national and state levels, KIDS COUNT also provides data by territory, when possible. Policymakers, child welfare agencies and others have used these data for decades to understand how well the system is meeting the needs of vulnerable children, youth and families, and how it can be strengthened so that all abused and neglected children can heal and grow up with safe, stable families.
Statistics on Emotional, Behavioral and Health Problems Linked to Child Trauma
Children and youth who experience trauma, including abuse or neglect, are at increased risk for long-term emotional, behavioral and physical health problems, among other challenges. KIDS COUNT offers scores of additional measures that describe these types of life challenges for children and youth, ranging from high-risk behavior, such as juvenile justice system involvement and substance abuse , to difficulties with mental health, physical health and academic performance . (These data are provided by state and race and ethnicity, as well as other breakdowns, when possible.) Importantly, the consequences of child maltreatment can be mitigated with equitable access to trauma-informed services and nurturing, lasting family relationships and support.
Child Maltreatment Trends
The likelihood that a child will be abused or neglected in the United States has improved slightly in recent years: 8 in every 1,000 kids under 18 were confirmed victims of maltreatment in 2020, after holding steady at 9 per 1,000 from 2015 to 2019. Of the 615,000 victims in 2020, three in four experienced neglect, consistently the most common type of maltreatment . Nearly one in five (16%) of these children were physically abused, 9% were sexually abused, 6% were emotionally abused and 2% experienced medical neglect. Young kids are the most at risk, as 72% of verified victims were 10 and under in 2020, similar to previous years.
See the Foundation’s recent Child Maltreatment Trends blog for more details and links to the data, including more about the consequences of child mistreatment and how it can be prevented.
Foster Care Statistics
Foster care is meant to provide safe, temporary living arrangements and support services for children who have been removed from their families due to maltreatment, lack of safety or inadequate care. The following selection of foster care statistics from KIDS COUNT describes children who enter care, their demographic characteristics, their living arrangements during foster care, where they go when they exit care and the experiences of youth who never leave and age out of the system. These are critical indicators that can flag areas for system improvement, such as the disproportionate representation of children of color and the need to better support older youth in foster care.
Learn more about the foster care system in a recent Foundation blog post.
Children Entering Foster Care
In 2020, 213,964 children under 18 entered foster care in the United States, a rate of 3 per 1,000. The rate of entry has hovered at 3 or 4 per 1,000 for two decades. Kids ages 1 to 5 make up the largest share ( 30% in 2020 ) of children entering care. National data also show that Black and American Indian children continue to be overrepresented among those entering foster care. In 2020, Black children represented 20% of those entering care but only 14% of the total child population , while American Indian kids made up 2% of those entering care and 1% of the child population. The reasons for this are complex , and efforts to improve racial equity in child welfare have been under way for many years.
Explore more statistics on children entering foster care, including data by state:
Children entering foster care by race and ethnicity
Children in Foster Care
Once children enter foster care, the goal is to either safely reunify them with their parents if the family concerns are resolved or secure another permanent family . A total of 407,493 children and youth were living in foster care in 2020 , with one-third ages 1 to 5 and 7% babies , figures that have been steady for years. Consistent with the inequities described above, national data on children in foster care illustrate the disproportionate representation of Black and American Indian children , in particular.
In a pattern holding since 2000, nearly half of foster children are placed with nonrelative foster families ( 45% in 2020 and — in encouraging news — placements with relatives increased from 25% to 34% during 2000–2020, and placements in group homes or other facilities dropped from 18% to 10%. Fewer children are placed in pre-adoptive homes (4% in 2020) or have trial home visits (4%), and some older youth live independently with supervision (2%).
More than a third of foster children and youth experience two or more placements each year, meaning their living arrangements change at least twice a year. At the state level in 2020, this figure ranged from 24% to 49% . Child welfare agencies are working to minimize these moves, as they are disruptive, stressful and often traumatizing. Stable relationships and home environments are critical for healthy child and youth development.
Children living with neither parent
Children Exiting Foster Care
The latest data show that approximately 224,396 children and youth exit foster care each year and just under half (48% in 2020) are reunified with their parent or primary caretaker, down from 57% in 2000. Adoptions increased steadily between 2014 and 2019, and decreased slightly in 2020 , with about one in four children exiting foster care to adoptive homes in the last few years. Other common outcomes for children and youth who cannot return to their parents include living with legal guardians (10% in 2020) or other relatives (6%) and emancipation (9%), also known as aging out of foster care.
Of the more than 58,000 children in the child welfare system who were adopted in 2020, over half were young kids age 1 to 5 , consistent with previous years. Most of these adoptions are by the foster parents (either relatives or nonrelatives) who cared for the children while in foster care.
Explore all statistics about young people exiting foster care and those who have been adopted:
by race and ethnicity
Key Findings From the Child Welfare Information Gateway on How Long Kids Stay in Foster Care
The federal government’s Child Welfare Information Gateway summarizes additional foster care statistics, such as the length of time children spend in care. Their Foster Care Statistics 2020 factsheet showed that, unfortunately, the median amount of time in foster care has increased over the last decade—from 13.7 months in 2009 to 15.9months in 2020, based on children who exited care in each year. However, the percentage of kids who spent 5+ years in care declined between 2009 and 2020. Among children who exited foster care in 2020, four in 10 were there less than a year, while nearly half(47%) spent 1 to 3 years in care and 15% stayed in foster care 3+ years.
Youth Aging Out of Foster Care
More than 20,000 youth left foster care in 2020 without reuniting with their parents or having another permanent family home. The transition to adulthood is a significant and challenging developmental phase of life for all young people, but youth aging out of foster care on their own must face this without the support of a stable, loving family. Many also lose access to services and supports offered through the foster care system. Not surprisingly, these youth and young adults are more likely to experience behavioral, mental and physical health issues, housing problems and homelessness, employment and academic difficulties, early parenthood, incarceration and other potentially lifelong adversities. In line with the racial inequities noted earlier, youth of color are more likely to experience these challenges. The trajectories of these young people are not guaranteed, however. They can be positively influenced by policies and practices that ensure these vulnerable youths receive culturally-responsive, trauma-informed transition services and support to navigate the steps to adulthood, achieve stability and reach their full potential.
Recognizing the importance of focusing on this population, the Foundation provides in-depth resources on youth aging out of foster care and 30 indicators describing the challenges they face as well as the support they receive, including academic, employment, health, financial, mentoring and other transition services.
Key findings among youth transitioning out of foster care:
See all statistics on youth aging out of foster care , including data by state and territory.
Other Statistics Linked to Childhood Adversity and Trauma
When children, youth and young adults experience trauma, such as abuse, neglect or even hardships during foster care, it can disrupt healthy development and result in lasting negative outcomes. Such effects may be related to behavioral and mental health issues, criminal justice system involvement, education and employment problems, chronic health conditions and more. The risks of adverse outcomes can be reduced by providing buffering family and community supports to young people.
KIDS COUNT offers a vast array of state-by-state statistics on these issues, with much of it available by race and other demographic factors, including data on:
Safety and risky behaviors , such as youth residing in juvenile detention facilities, and teens abusing alcohol or using cigarettes, marijuana and other drugs
Mental and physical health problems, such as young adults feeling depressed or hopeless, and health conditions (e.g., obesity, asthma and special health care needs)
Academic achievement and related issues, for example, test scores, household internet services, school discipline, students missing school, students not completing high school, teens neither working nor in school, and much more
Youth and young adult well-being , overall, spanning 60+ measures of employment, poverty, education, health, and family and community issues
Learn More About Child Welfare in the United States
Recent Reports and Resources on Child Welfare and Foster Care
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been publishing resources and developing new solutions to support vulnerable children and families for more than two decades. Resources like the following reports help child welfare agencies, policymakers and advocates improve the child welfare system:
Integrating Positive Youth Development and Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Approaches Across the Child Welfare and Justice Systems : Developed in collaboration with Child Trends and Child Focus, this report introduces the STRENGTH frame¬work, which builds on young adults’ assets, addresses their developmental needs and advances community-based solutions that reduce or avoid family separation.
Too Many Teens: Preventing Unnecessary Out-of-Home Placement : Learn from model communities that have significantly reduced teens entering the child welfare and juvenile justice systems by offering high-quality screening and assessment and timely access to appropriate services. Strong leadership, flexible, sustainable funding and collaboration among child-serving agencies are also key factors.
Evaluation of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s On the Frontline Initiative : Learn about the experiences of child welfare agencies in two counties — Cuyahoga County in Ohio and Jefferson County in Colorado — that began implementing this initiative to help caseworkers and their supervisors make better investigative decisions about protecting children and strengthening families.
Putting Family First : Learn the whys and hows of preventive services under the Family First Prevention Services Act and the process of developing a strong practice model that aligns with the law’s requirements and provides targeted support for children at risk of child welfare placement and their families.
Read more of the Foundation’s wide-ranging resources on child welfare and foster care topics: