09/29/2011 01:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 29, 2011

The Numbers Game: Making Sense of the Latest Research on Youth in Foster Care

Should we be hopeful? Or should we despair?

I have been moving between these two emotions as I read the flurry of new research released in the
past few weeks.

There are reasons to be concerned for the children in our country. 16.4 million children now live in poverty. This is equal to 22% of all children, the largest number of American children in poverty in nearly 40 years. As the economy struggles to recover from recession, the most vulnerable Americans continue to suffer.

As the ranks of the impoverished grow, and as middle-class families find themselves slipping into financial stress, children are increasingly at risk. Another recently published report indicates that cases of child abuse have increased in correlation to, but not necessarily because of, the recession. While child abuse is not limited to families struggling with lost wages or lost jobs, economic struggles do raise the stresses on parents, who sometimes may not cope, to their own loved ones' detriment.

But among all of these disheartening numbers, this is another number that has intrigued me: 408,425.

This is the number of children who were in the foster care system on September 30, 2010. This number was released earlier this summer by the Children's Bureau, part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, as part of their yearly AFCARS report.

This number has been going down steadily for the past decade. In 2002, this number was 523,000. Think about that. Today, there are 100,000 fewer children involved in the foster care system than just eight years ago.

Now, the key question is why this trend is happening. And this is the part that keeps me awake at night.

Our friends at the Children's Defense Fund have spent some time looking at these numbers, and they have come up with some great insights. As one example, they note that the number of children waiting to be adopted has trended down in the past year. At the same time, the percent of children who exited care into adoption is up slightly. This seems like a good sign: more children are leaving care to go to permanent homes.

But let's go back to that question: Why is the overall number of young people in out-of-home care going down? Are youth not entering care because parents are receiving earlier and more appropriate help to allow them to keep their children with them? If that is the case, that would be a very good result.

When we posted this question to our followers on Facebook, several people suggested another possible reason for the decline: more children are being voluntarily placed with relatives rather than entering the foster care system. This too might be good -- children are leaving abusive homes to find safe shelter. Or it might be that relative care is a temporary solution. As one Facebook commenter put it, "relatives are put into a situation that they can manage for a month or two, but not months, years, etc..."

Something else to consider: are fewer children entering care because caseworkers are reluctant to refer children into an already overwhelmed system -- something that has happened in past recessions? Or is this because abuse is being reported less often, but happening just as frequently? If so, then this number is a cause for alarm.

Even if the most hopeful interpretations are true, there could be unexpected consequences. For example, if more children are exiting the system more quickly, then who are the older youth still waiting for a permanent home? Who are the 43,000 young people in foster care who have been there more than three years?

I am going to choose to be hopeful, but vigilant. This decline may be good news, but clearly more work is needed to protect children in this country. I want to see the number of children in the foster care system drop to zero. I look forward to the day when child abuse is something we read about in the history books, not on the front pages of newspapers.

But in the meantime, we owe it to the thousands of children in care to remember that they are people, not statistics. We are obliged to listen to their concerns, to lift up their voices and to do everything we can to guide each of them safely to a permanent home.