A Close Look at the AFCARS Report

Written by
Steven Olender
Senior Director, Strategic Policy Initiatives
December 20, 2022

What is AFCARS? 

The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) is one of the main federal sources of data about the child welfare system. Twice each year, states, tribes, and territories submit case data to the federal government on every child that spends more than 24 hours in child welfare custody. The data is then compiled by the Children’s Bureau, the agency within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) that oversees child welfare in the United States. The report details information about each child’s age, race/ethnicity, sex, and disabilities, along with the reasons they were removed from their families and details about their placements, caregivers, and other information about their time in foster care. 

Why is AFCARS important?

The Children’s Bureau uses the data to monitor state compliance with federal laws, to assist states in improving their child welfare systems, and to allocate certain funding. For Think of Us and other advocates, AFCARS gives us a clearer picture of the children and youth that are coming into contact with the child welfare system and allows us to recognize shifts in the broader child welfare ecosystem. It helps us to understand what research we should prioritize, what opportunities there are for policy reform, and where we might want to lean in for implementation work in the states. 

We know, though, that while administrative data like AFCARS is critical, it paints an incomplete picture of the realities and impacts of the child welfare system. Decisions for reform must be informed and directed by data and insights from people with lived experience. 

What does the most recent AFCARS tell us? 

Falling numbers of children in foster care

For the first time since 2013, the number of children in foster care on a given day dropped below 400,000 to 391,098. This represents a 4% decrease, as the number of children entering care fell faster than the number of children exiting.

It is hard to tell how much of this decline was driven by increased investment in prevention and family support and how much was driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing that gives us a hint toward understanding is the length of time young people have been in care. This year’s AFCARS report showed a sharp decline in the number of children who had been in care for 6-11 months (11.92%) and an even sharper decline in the number of children in care for 12-17 months (21.68%). That indicates that we saw our sharpest decline of children entering care between April 30, 2020 and March 30, 2021. Entries have now begun to recover toward the pre-COVID baseline, as the number of children who had been in care for 1-5 months increased by 7.64% over the previous year, though this could be more reflective of the sharp drop the previous year than of an increase now. Regardless of how much of the decline can be attributed to the effects of the pandemic, too many children are in foster care and it is clear that we must invest more in supporting families before they ever come to the eye of the system. 

As we look at other data in AFCARS, it is important that we compare it to the overall decline in child welfare involvement. Basically, this means that we should expect a 4% decrease in most other numbers. If any numbers drop significantly more or less than 4%, there is a story there that we should delve more deeply into. 

A shift away from institutional care and toward kinship care

The number of children in group homes and institutions fell 8.86 percent in FY2021, more than double the overall drop of children in foster care. Alternatively, while the number of children placed with relatives fell 2.54 percent, it is important to note that that is less than ⅔ the overall drop of children in care. This shifted the composition of child welfare system placement, with a greater proportion of children being raised by relatives and lesser proportion of children being raised in institutions . 

This is progress, but there is still a long way to go, as more than 35,000 children in care (~9%) are being raised in group homes or institutions and only 35 percent of children are being raised by people who already knew and loved them before they came into care. 

More youth in supervised independent living

This year’s data showed that the number of youth in supervised independent living, in which youth transitioning to adulthood receive certain supports from the system but with limited oversight, increased by 7.62% even as the overall number of children in foster care fell. This is not surprising given that COVID-related policies placed a moratorium on youth aging out of care and allowed young people who had aged out to re-enter foster care. This data highlights the extent to which transition-age youth struggled during the pandemic and that targeted policy solutions are effective in supporting them. Unfortunately, these federal flexibilities expired the day after this data was collected. 

A new low in rates of reunification

The percentage of children who left care to be reunited with their families of origin fell to 47%, the lowest rate since the federal government began tracking this data. This continues a long trend of declining reunification rates that many advocates blame on federal policies that require termination of parental rights and incentivize adoption. We expect some decrease in reunification as the system shifts toward prevention because, ideally, only the most serious cases of abuse and neglect would require children to be placed in foster care. Still, these rates are shockingly low, indicative of a system that places unfair burdens on families and fails to invest sufficiently in helping children return home. 

Alternatively, even as exits from care fell, the number of children leaving to guardianship with kin rose by 8%, reflecting a promising investment in sustaining family relationships even when children cannot reunify with their parents. 

This reflects only a small portion of the data contained in the AFCARS report, but shows some of the pieces Think of Us is tracking most closely. To see more of the data, check out the full report here