Persistent Patterns Provide Insight into Child Welfare System

Using data from the Multistate Foster Care Data Archive, this report provides an overview of what happens when children are placed in foster care. Because of the large number of children for whom data are collected and how the data are organized, the results presented provide a useful baseline for studying entry and exit patterns. The report also identifies patterns in service delivery that may be useful for targeting resources and understanding how state policies and practices impact utilization and outcomes.

What we did

This report aggregates a sample of data from the Multistate Foster Care Data Archive of 348,695 children admitted to foster care for the first time between 2000 and 2005. We describe foster care caseloads, their size and composition, and how they change over time. Specifically, we compared and analyzed patterns of entry into foster care, the stability of placement, the length of time spent in care, how children leave foster care and the likelihood of reentry to care by looking at the histories of different subgroups of children.

What we found

Demographic characteristics like age and race or ethnicity have an impact on how long youth are in care and how they exit care:

  • Young children are more likely to enter foster care and have longer duration in care than older children.
  • The probability of adoption is much higher for children admitted to foster care before their first birthday than for older children. However, their likelihood of reunification is much lower compared to older children.
  • African American children have a higher risk of placement and longer duration in care compared to white or Hispanic children. Hispanic children leave foster care at somewhat faster rates than white children.

Type of placement, geography, and local policy also affects outcomes for youth in care:

  • Prior placement history is a powerful predictor of future events for children who have been in foster care.
  • A higher proportion of children in urban areas are placed in congregate care and kinship care than children in non-urban areas. This leads to longer duration in care for children in urban areas, who are also less likely to be reunified with their families.
  • The likelihood of adoption and reunification varies by state, reflecting the impact of state-specific policies and practices.

What it means

Patterns of service delivery that persist or change over time and place provide insight both into the causes of abuse and neglect, and into the service system itself. This knowledge can be used to focus resource allocation and to determine how best to monitor progress toward desired outcomes.

Policy makers and researchers need to consider demographic explanations as a source of insight into the risk of placement, the long-term evolution of the foster care population, and the targeting of resources.

Further research is needed to understand how state-specific policies and practices contribute to the pattern and the timing of child welfare involvement.

Recommended Citation
Wulczyn, F., Chen, L., & Hislop, K.B. (2007) Foster care dynamics 2000–2005: A report from the Multistate Foster Care Data Archive. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago
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