For several years, CASA volunteers and staff around the country have been concerned about an ominous trend. Despite a general decline in the number of children in foster care, the family courts were requesting more volunteer advocates for more and more foster youth. Additionally, the children who had CASA and guardian ad litem advocates were coming from more challenging home situations. It is a sadly familiar pattern we have seen after previous recessions.
Last year we also noted that the decline in children in foster care was leveling off. The new numbers now confirm what our volunteers feared might happen. The number of children in foster care nationwide increased in 2013 for the first time in seven years. At the same time, we have received a report that child welfare spending actually declined nationwide between 2010 and 2012. That's the first time spending has gone down in twenty years.
This drop in spending is not accounted for by the declining numbers from 2012, according to Child Trends' research. Plus, now that we know the number of children in care is rising again, it looks like a perfect storm: less money for services, but more children, from more difficult circumstances, coming into care.
There is even more to this story. In 2013, a higher number of children came into foster care than left care. The number of adoptions out of foster care declined. And most disappointing is the fact that older youth continue to "emancipate" from foster care in extraordinary numbers--over 23,000 of them last year. Emancipation is a fancy word for a terrible outcome; leaving foster care without having found a permanent home with a caring family. The percentage of foster youth leaving the system without a permanent home increased last year and the rate is substantially higher than it was ten years ago.
While many foster parents and CASA volunteers maintain some contact with these young adults after they leave care, these foster care alumni face daunting challenges. Much more needs to be done to assure that these young people, who have often spent years in the care of the state, have a better start in adulthood.
There is another issue with the national numbers. Large scale foster care trends can hide state and local differences that suggest foster care outcomes sometimes depend entirely on where a child happens to live. Even prior years' decreases were not evenly spread across the country. Half of the reduction in numbers in 2012 happened in just ten counties--just three tenths of one percent of all counties in the US.
CASA volunteers from across the country have been saying for years that they are seeing more children in need of help from highly troubled homes, but that many places can't give these kids the support they need to succeed.
Sadly, now first-hand anecdotes are being backed up with these sobering reports: telling us that these systems are losing funding, that more kids desperately need help. A system in this much distress cannot adequately care for children in distress.
We want to see all children in foster care achieve positive outcomes regardless of geography, economic circumstances, or such factors as race or ethnicity.
Youth in the foster care system need access to qualified mental health services, individually targeted educational plans, access to affordable housing, more effective transition services for youth who will age out of care, and connections to appropriate adults who will stand by the young person and help watch out for and strongly advocate for their best interests.
There are many ways that you can help these children, beginning today. Financially supporting a CASA program or training as a CASA volunteer are two important ways to start. CASA volunteers help connect foster youth to services and support the social workers and attorneys who want to give these kids more of their time and attention but simply cannot for a multitude of reasons. Another way to help - write to your legislators and ask them to support innovation and new services in the child welfare systems with the funds to pay for it. Or look into becoming a foster parent, a port in a storm for a young person who needs you.
There is much to be done to help our nation's foster youth. Won't you join us?