Feds Aim to Better Measure, Retain Foster Homes

By John Kelly, Senior Editor for The Imprint

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Each year, the Department of Health and Human Services provides a data picture on abuse and neglect, and on the youth who experience foster care. 

A new bill introduced in the Senate last week would add another annual report on the capacity of each states’ foster care system, something that The Imprint has endeavored to do without the force of law since 2018. 

The Data-Driven Foster Parent Recruitment and Retention Act, co-authored by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) would require states to collect data about the capacity of its foster care system and its utilization of group homes and institutions, and mandate that the federal government report annually on that information. The data collected would also reflect demographic information on foster parents, some of which is already gathered through other federal data systems. 

Additionally, the bill would add a new wrinkle to the Diligent Recruitment Plan that each state is already required to provide to the feds in exchange for some federal child welfare funding. States would now have to create what is described as a family partnership plan, which would articulate how they planned to incorporate the input of kin, foster parents and youth with lived experience in their recruitment strategies, and how they would support foster parent retention through family advisory boards. 

“Foster parents open their home to children, taking on immense responsibility during what can often be a very difficult time for a child,” Hassan said in a statement announcing the legislation.  “It is essential that their feedback, and the feedback of individuals who have previously been in the foster care system, is incorporated into foster care programs so that states can build a stronger foster family recruitment system.”

The Imprint has been collecting foster care capacity data from states since 2018, asking each of them to report on the number of licensed foster homes available, how many active relative placements there are, and more. The data is available on our “Who Cares” website.

Since 2019, every state with the exception of Virginia has reported the number of total licensed foster homes (The Imprint asks for a count as of March 31 of each year, or as close as possible to that date). The number of licensed homes in the United States has ranged in the past three years from 218,927 in 2019 to 212,225 in 2021 — roughly, one for every two youth in foster care. 

Given the increasing use of relatives to care for youth in foster care — many of whom do not become licensed foster parents — and the continued use of congregate care, the national foster care capacity count does not suggest an overall shortage of homes. But states have reported to The Imprint for this project that they face significant shortages of homes in certain regions, or  that will take in teens or youth with complex medical or behavioral health needs. 

Meanwhile, recent research shows that retention of foster homes after licensure is a major problem in America. The Center for State Child Welfare Data followed 14,834 newly licensed foster homes opened in one state between 2011 and 2016, and found that only 5% of the homes licensed in 2011 remained. A quarter of the licensed homes left the system after less than three months. 

A slate of 25 national and state-level advocacy groups were quick to send a letter of support for the legislation, including the National Foster Parent Association, the North American Council on Adoptable Children and Children’s Home Society of America. 

“Many years of experience tell us that the important work of recruiting foster families requires agencies to utilize effective, data-driven approaches,” the letter said. The bill “offers much-needed improvements to federal policy by providing clear guidance to help child welfare agencies plan and implement best practices in foster parent recruitment and retention.”


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The Imprint is an independent, nonprofit daily news publication dedicated to covering child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and educational issues faced by vulnerable children and families.