The Children’s Bureau has just released 2009 data which shows a continuation of the trend of declining numbers of children in foster care. For the first time in over a decade, the number of children in foster care dipped below 425,000. So this is great news, right? Someone is doing something good, right?
This must mean that we are protecting children, preventing child abuse. Fewer kids being abused means fewer kids entering foster care. Or it could mean that we are sending kids home in a more timely manner. Instead of languishing in care, families get the help they need and children return to their parent(s) or guardian(s). That would certainly confirm that the Adoption & Safe Families Act (ASFA) has been successful in improving the care and permanency of children who are removed from the custody of their parent or guardian.
The problem with the numbers is that we don’t know the story behind the numbers. We don’t know what caused the drop. Yes, it could be that fewer children are experiencing abuse/neglect so there is lower placement into foster care. Or it could be that children are being reunified in a more timely manner.
Or it could be that public agencies are less likely to remove children compared to 10 years ago. It could be that children are staying in abusive situations. It could be that children are being returned to homes before the family has the skills and resources necessary to ensure that children are safe from recurrent maltreatment.
Generally I prefer to be a ‘glass half full’ kind of person. But my more prominent tendency is to thoroughly evaluate a situation, consider all available data as well as the quality of said data, and make an educated assessment of the circumstances. In this case, there are too many missing pieces to fully understand trends in data. And there are also compelling reasons to suspect that there may be multiple factors influencing the data. ASFA, CFSRs & PIPs, dwindling financial resources, increased scrutiny; they all are likely skewing the data.
The bottom line is that, while our data is improving, the challenges with quality as well as a paucity of scientifically sound research make it impossible to understand what the lower numbers really mean. This is why we need to continually improve data collection and reporting…our children need us to do this in order to provide the best possible prevention, intervention, and treatment.
ASFA = Adoption & Safe Families Act
CFSR = Child & Family Services Review
PIP = Performance Improvement Plan