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Family Connections and Children in Foster Care

Posted on May 24, 2016

More than 400,000 children are in foster care in the United States. Often, these children can’t stay with their parents because of abuse or neglect. Instead, they rely on state child welfare agencies to place them with families or provide other places to live.

For Foster Care Awareness month, we take a look at efforts to keep children in foster care connected to their relatives, housing alternatives when a family is not an option, and how this can vary by state.

Keeping siblings and relatives together

For years, state and federal policies disconnected foster children from their families and schools, leaving those children ill-prepared to transition out of care at age 18. So, in 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.

The law emphasized the importance of building and maintaining family connections. For example, within 30 days of a child’s removal from parents’ custody, states must notify all of the child’s grandparents and other adult relatives with information about becoming a resource for the child, with some exceptions.

We surveyed child welfare agencies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and found that how they notify relatives, when they start looking them, and other actions related to the law can vary by state.

Figure 1: Top Three Practices Used by States to Implement Required Provisions Related to Family Connections (Excerpted from GAO-14-347)

And, it’s not always easy to keep siblings and relatives connected. Nearly half of the 400,000 children in foster care live with caretakers who aren’t related to them. These children may also be separated from their brothers or sisters.

If siblings are placed in different foster homes, the 2008 law is also supposed to help those siblings maintain contact. What help a child welfare agency gives those siblings can also vary from state to state. For example, in Texas, if siblings are placed more than 100 miles apart, the state agency is supposed to ensure that they have access to a phone and videoconferencing for regular communication. In Massachusetts, current and former foster youth told us their state agency created a Sibling Bill of Rights, which has helped foster children advocate for their right to remain in close contact with siblings.

When a family isn’t an option

While most children in foster care live with a family, we found that about 14% were placed in group homes or institutions, also known as “congregate care.”

Percentage of Foster Children in Congregate Care by State (Sept. 30, 2013)(Excerpted from GAO-16-85)

Since 1980, states have been required to try to place foster children in the most family-like setting available, consistent with a child’s needs. And, nationwide, congregate foster care use has declined.

But this also varies state by state. For example, from 2004 through 2013, New Jersey reduced its use of congregate care by nearly 80%, while Washington reduced it by around 7%.

Why the difference? Washington already had one of the smallest proportions of foster kids in congregate care. When we went to find out why, Washington state officials told us that they were already doing intensive searches to find family members and emphasized family-based placements, even families unrelated to the child, over congregate care.

New Jersey, by contrast, ramped up its efforts around 2005, recruiting more families to help foster children and providing more training for those families, which is why New Jersey’s reduction in congregate care was so much greater than Washington’s during the same period.

In fact, the story of children in congregate foster care is largely a state story. For example, Hurricane Katrina prompted Louisiana to reduce congregate care in 2005. Following that disaster, the state worked with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to improve its child welfare system.

As you can imagine, children in foster care can face a host of challenges. To learn more, check out the results of our nationwide survey of child welfare agencies, read our report on congregate care, and browse all of our foster care reports on our website.

GAO Contacts

Kay E. Brown

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