After dropping for seven straight years, the number of US children in foster care rose slightly last year, according to new federal figures released Monday.
The annual report from the Department of Health and Human Services tallied 402,378 children in the foster care system as of Sept. 30, 2013, up from about 397,000 a year earlier, but still down dramatically from a decade earlier. The peak was 524,000 children in foster care in 2002, and the number had dropped steadily since 2005.
The long-term drop resulted primarily from a shift in the policies and practices of state and county child welfare agencies. Many shortened stays in foster care, expedited adoptions and expanded preventive support for troubled families so more children avoided being removed from home in the first place.
"While we have seen these national numbers hold steady over the past few years, it's important to note that there is great variation among states and many are still reducing their foster care populations," said JooYeun Chang, associate commissioner of HHS's Administration on Children, Youth and Families.
The average length of stay in foster care has been reduced by more than 10 percent since 2002, according to the report. The mean stay is now 21.8 months.
Of the children in foster care a year ago, 52 percent were boys. Twenty-two percent were Hispanic, 24 percent black and 42 percent white; 101,840 of them were available for adoption.
During the 2013 fiscal year, 50,608 children were adopted from foster care, down from 52,042 in 2012, while 23,090 youths in their late teens aged out of the system without being placed with a permanent family.
Boosting the number of adoptions is one of the goals of a multifaceted bill that won final congressional approval on Sept. 18.
Titled the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, it seeks to improve the system of offering incentives to states for facilitating adoptions out of foster care. Among its other provisions, the bill would require state child welfare agencies to promote "normalcy" for youth in foster care – llowing them to more easily participate in age-appropriate social and academics activities.
The Washington Examiner reported Monday that California Governor Jerry Brown signed a series of bills to support youth in foster care, including early placement with relatives and housing support for those who have aged out of foster care and are enrolled in college.