Data regarding child welfare is fairly straight-forward, right? There is little room for interpretation when it comes to counting the number of children in foster care, or so it would seem. In the course of preparing visuals to illustrate data trends, I’ve repeatedly been reminded of the misunderstandings regarding said data. I’m not talking about Joe and Jane on the street, but also some child welfare advocates. So I decided to set the record straight on one of the most common errors in reporting child welfare data.
The issue: number of kids involved in the foster care system. The data error: citing the Adoption & Foster Care Analysis & Reporting System, or AFCARS (point in time) data. This data is collected within states who provide the information to the federal Administration for Children & Families. So it should be reliable, right?
Let’s start with the biggest misconception about foster care data. It has been reported that there were 408,000 children in foster care in 2010 (or some variation of this language). What this means is that, on September 30th, 2010, there were 408,000 children in foster care. However, many more children were actually in foster care in the 11 months preceding September. Many children entered and exited foster care throughout the year, some more than once. According to ACF, 662,000 children were in foster care at some point in time during fiscal year 2010. I think most would agree, there is a bit of a difference in the two numbers. And yet, even seasoned child welfare professionals will often cite the 408,000 number when talking about the number of children in foster care in 2010.
While the previous numbers demonstrate a very common misconception about the numbers, there are other factors that influence the accuracy of the numbers. When looking at foster care numbers, many people do not realize is that while numbers presented for 8 years ago may be reasonably accurate (although not always), the more current numbers are less accurate. There is a reason that ACF generally refers to the latest data as ‘estimates‘. There are a few explanations for differences or inaccuracies; so it might be best to start at the beginning.
This can best be explained with an illustration. Imagine that you are Susan Socialworker and you are called to your supervisor’s office at 3:00 PM on February 25th. You are handed a case file on the Jones family, whose three children were removed by the police last night and placed into foster care. Your job now is to meet the children, foster parents, biological parents, and any other involved parties in order to assess the situation, arrange for necessary services, and prepare for a court hearing. You also have anywhere from 12 to as many as 40 or 50 other children on your caseload who hopefully are in stable situations that do not require your immediate attention. In addition to meeting the new family and managing your existing caseload, you are required to perform data entry tasks so that the three new children are accurately accounted for in the state data system, foster parents and other providers paid, and essential demographic information recorded. Given this scenario, what task do you think will be postponed? If the data were to be transmitted to the federal ACF on the 28th, would it be an accurate reflection of the number of children in care on your caseload on February 25th? Multiple these by the nearly 700 children that enter foster care on a given day and the difference becomes larger.
While this over-simplified scenario may account for some short-term differences in the numbers, there are many other factors that influence accuracy, including both technology and human errors. First off, it will likely be six or seven months before the three children on Susan’s caseload are included in public releases of foster care numbers. This is because states do not transmit their data to the federal government on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis but every six months. And one glance at the most current chart provided by ACF illustrating the data and it is clear that numbers are rounded up or down, accounting for other potential differences.
The next time you hear numbers quoted regarding children in foster care, it is my hope that you will keep in mind that they are estimates and the way in which these estimates are presented can significantly alter our understanding of the scope of this topic. These are numbers that describe to the world the children impacted by foster care. While the differences may be minor at a community level, these numbers influence public understanding and opinion and perhaps more critical, the amount of local, state, and federal funds that support vulnerable children and families.