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How Does The Foster Care System Work?

The foster care system is complex, composed of a combination of federal, state and local organizations working to keep children safe and help them thrive in a home and school environment. The foster care system is not a single entity.

While the primary responsibility of child welfare services belong to the states and counties (depending on if the state is county administered), the federal government plays a supporting role in funding and legislation.

Specifically, The Children’s Bureau (CB) implements federal child and family legislation within The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

They develop programs that focus on preventing child abuse and neglect by strengthening families, protecting children from further maltreatment, reuniting children safely with their families, or finding permanent families for children who cannot safely return home, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

What Is Foster Care?

Foster care is meant to be a temporary arrangement in which trained caregivers, including kinship or relative caregivers, provide for the care of a child when their biological parent(s) are unable to care for them.

Over 77% of all foster children are placed with relatives or non-relative caregivers, while the remainder are placed in group homes (any home that has six or more kids in it, which can also be considered a family household), institutions, or supervised independent living.

All ages, from infants to youth between 18 – 21 years old (depending on the state), are represented in the foster care system, with the median age of entry just 6.1 years of age. While designed to be a temporary arrangement, the average time a young person spends in care is almost 2 years (20.1 months) before they are reunified or exited care to permanency, legal guardianship including adoption, or have emancipated from the system.

The goal for all children is to reunify with their family unless reunification is not possible (parents are dead or incarcerated) or it is not in the best interest of the child (i.e. parents present a real, documented and present danger to the life and health of the child).

Each state provides a subsidy to cover some of the basic costs associated with raising a child. Nationally, these subsidies are less than half of the average amount a family spends to raise a child.

According to the most recent Children’s Bureau statistics, there were an estimated 437,465 children in foster care on September 30, 2016, which is an increase of approximately 10,000 children compared to the same date the year prior. Of these, there are approximately 108,000 foster children eligible for and waiting to be adopted. Tragically, this stat has stayed consistent for the past five years

How many children are in foster care nationally?

1. There are approximately 424,000 foster youth nationwide. Despite child welfare’s efforts to prevent the removal of children from their parents, the number of children in foster care has been increasing. Currently, we are at an all time high as the demand for foster parents is far higher than the supply, and factors like parental opioid addiction are forcing more children to be removed from their homes.

2. The median age of children in foster care is 6 ½ years old. While many people stereotype foster children as troubled teens, the truth of the matter is that most foster children are just that — children. Their biological parents are taken from them at a very young age, which can have a huge impact on their cognitive and emotional development growing up if they are not cared for properly in their youth.

3. 20,000 youth age out of the foster care system between the ages of 18 – 21 annually. The exact time a foster youth ages out of the system depends on where they live. Regardless, roughly 20,000 youth are forced to exit the system annually without having found a forever family, leaving them to fend for themselves.

4. The foster care system underinvests in foster children, contributing less than 50% of what it costs an average American family to raise a child from 0 – 17 years of age. With this tragic lack of investment, it is not surprising that youth are not adequately prepared for independence. Within four years of aging out, 70% will be on government assistance, 25% will not have completed high school, and less than 12% will ever earn their college degree. Not only is this a tragic loss of potential, but our economy as a whole suffers a cost of $1million per youth we fail because of lost production and the cost of social services.

The iFoster Resource Portal provides thousands of curated resources specifically to address this investment gap, contributing over $125 million annually into the lives of foster youth.

5. Within four years of aging out, 50% have no earnings, and those who do make an average annual income of $7,500. After a foster youth ages out, homelessness and unemployment become a huge issue. Despite there being more than 34 million entry level jobs nationwide, many foster youth aren’t prepared to be independent and don’t have the skills or resources needed to access the opportunities that could launch them into employment.

The iFoster Jobs Program was created to combat that exact issue. This is a trauma and evidence informed training program that has provided hundreds of foster youth with the job skills they need to succeed in the workforce. iFoster has partnered with over 25 major corporate employers who offer interviews to each of the youths who graduate from training. As a result, these youth have achieved financial stability, and have experienced three times the industry average retention rate in the first six months of their jobs. The iFoster Jobs Program is being evaluated as a promising practice in youth employment.

6. Only 5% of rural foster youth and 21% of urban foster youth report access to a computer at home. Having access to technology is crucial for a foster child to be on a level playing field with their peers and to pursue education and employment opportunities. Without a laptop or smartphone (that has voice, text, data and a hotspot), they are restricted in many arenas, including studying, job applications, extracurricular opportunities, and networking.

The iFoster Pilot Program with California Public Utilities Commission has provided over 12,000 cell phone Internet hotspots to foster youth in California. The iFoster Computer Program has provided over 5,000 laptops to youth across the county. Technology is the gateway to normalcy and opportunity for foster youth.

Want to learn more? Please contact so we can connect you with the resources you or your foster youth need to succeed