In 1980, about 300,000 children in the United States spent some time in foster care placement. By 2001, there were nearly 800,000 children in foster care, with 540,000 children in the system at any given time. The majority of these children were the victims of abuse. The emergence of widespread homelessness, substance abuse (especially crack and methamphetamines), unemployment, increased incarceration rates, street violence, and HIV/AIDS have all impacted poor communities. Children from families with multiple problems flooded the child welfare system. Young children with physical handicaps, mental delays or mental illness, and complex medical conditions have become the fastest-growing foster care population.
The foster care population is quite young. About one-fourth of all children entering foster care for the first time are infants. Sixty percent of foster children are under four years old. Teenagers comprise one-third of the foster care population. Minority children comprise most of the foster care population, with the largest groups being African American and American Indian children.
Poor children are more likely to be in foster care than middle-class children because their families have fewer resources. Illness or loss of a job may be devastating to a poor family with no savings and no relatives who can afford to assist them. These children are also more likely to stay in foster care longer or to have been in foster care since infancy. Also, children of alcoholics or drug abusers are at high risk for neglect or abuse, and comprise 75 percent of all placements.
More than half (57 percent) of all children in foster care are returned to their original homes; however, reunification rates have declined in the 1990s and early twenty-first century. Children also spend more time in the system. The average length of stay for a child in foster care is 33 months. However, some spend a very short time in a foster home, and others are there for their entire childhoods, "aging out" at 18 when they become legal adults.
Instead of reunification, more children are being adopted from foster care. Most states doubled, and some tripled, the number of foster care adoptions since 1997. This steady increase is a response to the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 that recommends termination of parental rights and encourages adoption if a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the previous 22 months. This can be waived by the court if the parents are making substantive progress or the caseworker believes that legal guardianship, but not adoption, is in the child's best interests.
Half of all children in foster care live with nonrelative foster caregivers; about one-fourth live with relatives, and this number is growing. ASFA also recognized kinship caregivers as legitimate placements. It was customary for many poor families to take in a child informally when the child's parents or legal guardians were incarcerated, in treatment, or had died, but ASFA allowed relatives to take care of a child legally and receive financial help, and also opened the doors to a number of agencies and services the relatives could not afford.
Janie Franz, A. Woodward, Thomson Gale, Gale, Detroit,