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Foster care: Overall population drops, states have mixed results

Foster care populations dropped for the sixth straight year, reports the Department of Health and Human Services, due to state policies shifting toward shortening foster care stays, expediting adoptions, and increasing prevention support.

By Kelli KennedyAssociated Press / July 31, 2012

The total number of children in foster care dropped for the sixth straight year, according to a recent government report. Nathan Ross works as the Director of Youth Programs at Midwest Foster Care and Adoptive Association, an organization that connects young people in foster care and group homes with mentors, in this June 27, 2012, photo.

Tammy Ljungblad/The Kansas City Star/AP



The number of US children in foster care has dropped for the sixth straight year, falling to about 400,000 compared to more than 520,000 a decade ago, according to new federal figures demonstrating the staying power of reforms even amid economic turbulence.

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The drop results primarily from a shift in the policies and practices of state and county child welfare agencies. Many have shortened stays in foster care, expedited adoptions and expanded preventive support for troubled families so more children avoid being removed from home in the first place.

The new figures released by the Department of Health and Human Services show there were 400,540 children in foster care as of Sept. 30. That's down from 406,412 a year earlier and from about 523,000 in 2002.

State by state, the picture was mixed — with some states extending dramatic declines and the numbers in other states rising.

In Pennsylvania, there were 14,161 children in foster care on Sept. 30, down from 15,346 a year earlier and from 21,500 in 2002. In New York, there were 21,473 children in foster care statewide on Dec. 31, down from 26,783 in September 2010.

Both states have been pursuing multiple programs to reduce the numbers — including increased placements of children with relatives in kinship care, greater investment in family-preservation programs so children can stay safely in their own homes, and speedier family reunification if a child is placed in foster care.

Florida implemented similar programs, and took advantage of a waiver that allowed broad flexibility in how it spends federal child-welfare funding.

"We don't want kids in foster care for any reason for too long," Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families, said Monday. "If they can go back home safely we want to get them home quickly and if not, we want to get them adopted."

Florida privatized its foster care system nearly a decade ago, contracting out casework and other services, which experts said contributed to a dip in the ranks of kids in care. Its foster care numbers dropped from about 29,000 in 2006 to under 20,000 for the 2011 fiscal year.

However, the figure has crept up in the past 18 months, from 18,240 in Jan. 2011 to 19,730 last month.

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