Who Cares:
A National Count of Foster Homes and Families

Who Cares 2019: Executive Summary

Newly released data compiled and analyzed by The Imprint, the nation’s leading news outlet covering child welfare and juvenile justice, suggest that the United States is on the downside of its most recent foster care surge.

For most of the 2010s, federal data showed the number of children in foster care steadily increasing after a previous decade of decline. This spike, fueled in part by the opioid crisis, came as many states struggled to recruit and retain enough foster homes.

The tide may be turning on this front as well, according to The Imprint’s third annual Who Cares reporting project, which tracks the foster care population and housing capacity nationwide. The number of children in foster care is declining, while homes available to foster youth are on the rise.

But the data highlights some clear challenges around the country. For example, many states are still struggling with foster care capacity – at least 20 states saw the number of licensed homes decline between 2018 and 2019. And there are disturbing trends in foster care rates among black and Native American children in several states.


Since 2017, The Imprint has been working to build the nation’s first public resource on foster care capacity. We collect data directly from each state, and combine that with specially obtained federal reports to shed light on two critical questions:

How many children and youth are in foster care today? And where and with whom are they living?

Both questions speak to a state’s foster care capacity, the quantity of each different option at its disposal in serving youth that child welfare agencies have decided cannot live at home. In general, the three main choices are:

• The homes of relatives and other unrelated “kin.”
• Non-relative foster homes recruited and trained by child welfare agencies.
• “Congregate care,” a slate of placements that include emergency shelters, group homes and institutions.

You can access our entire collection of annual data by visiting www.FosterCareCapacity.org. There you will find national overviews on some key indicators, and robust individual profiles for each state. We also include feature stories and op-eds from prominent state and national officials and stakeholders on some of the key subjects around foster care capacity.


We began Who Cares in 2017 as a one-time attempt to gauge trends in the area of non-relative homes. Since then, our scope has widened in the hopes of gaining a long-term picture of total state capacity when it comes to foster care.

We collect the following numbers directly from state child welfare agencies:
1. Total licensed homes
2. Non-relative foster homes
3. Relatives with an active, ongoing placement of youth in their homes
4. The number of congregate care providers that take placements of foster youth, and the number of total beds available in them
5. The number of children in foster care placements of any kind

We ask that states provide these figures for March 31, or the closest possible point in time.

We then work with professional researchers to acquire and aggregate data collected through the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). While this data does lag behind present day by more than a year, it allows us to provide numbers on the demographics of both foster parents and foster youth, and trends in the number of youth living in each type of foster care setting.


Number of Youth in Care Declining
Between 2011 and 2017, federal data showed an increase of 8 percent in the number of children living in foster care. Federal officials have noted that this coincided with an increase in the number of cases where substance abuse was listed as a reason for removal.

We can say that, in 2019, data collected directly from states by The Imprint shows that the national total is declining, even as some states continue to grapple with surging numbers of youth.                                              

AFCARS produces a report on youth in care each year. However, the data in those collections lag behind by more than a full calendar year. The most recent report, for 2017, tallies 442,950 kids in foster care.

Based on our projection from collecting data directly from states, the number of youth in care either plateaued or declined very slightly between 2017 and 2018. And this year, our 2019 count has the number of youth in care just below 430,000, about a 3 percent decline since 2017.

While the process for the AFCARS report and our collection may differ, it is worth noting that our initial 2017 projection was within five children of the total number of kids in care reported in AFCARS for that year.

There were 16 states who reported an increase in foster between 2018 and 2019, and 11 of those states saw a jump of 10 percent or more.

Foster Homes on the Rise
Meanwhile, state data collected by The Imprint show that the total amount of licensed foster homes is growing. Based on data collected from almost every single state, the number of licensed homes was between 210,000 and 215,000 in 2018. In 2019, the range is up to between 220,000 and 225,000.

It is important to note that those relatively positive trends do belie a more mixed bag on individual state level. We were able to make a comparison of licensed homes in 45 states, and 20 of them saw at least some decline in quantity. Of those, 11 states saw a decline of more than 10 percent.

We also know from our own previous capacity reports, and from media coverage around the country, that states can experience serious capacity challenges even when their overall number of homes goes up. These challenges include regional deficits in foster homes, or a lack of homes willing or able to work with certain groups of kids, particularly older youth.  

The Congregate Care Cliff

Nationwide, AFCARS shows the number of youth in group homes and institutions – what is commonly referred to as congregate care – declined by about 12 percent between 2011 and 2017. But 20 states have seen the number of youth in congregate care rise during that same period, and 10 of those have seen an increase of 20 percent or more. New Hampshire nearly tripled the number of children in congregate care during this time frame.

These states are grappling with increased use of the most expensive option in foster care while a funding crunch looms. By 2021, federal spending on group homes and institutions will be dramatically limited by the Family First Prevention Services Act, a recent overhaul of Title IV-E, the federal funding entitlement program for child welfare. Right now, states have unlimited access to matching federal funds for congregate care.

Under Family First, in most cases states will be limited to just two weeks of federal support for placing kids in group settings. Exceptions to this limit will be made for settings designed for clinical treatment, youths older than 18, pregnant or parenting teens, and youths at risk of sex trafficking.

The actual proportion of foster youth in congregate settings stayed fairly even in most states. There were eight states that saw the share of kids living in congregate drop by more than 10 percentage points between 2011 and 2017:

Overall, Foster Care is Getting Younger and Whiter
In 2011, 39 percent of youth were 13 or older – that was down to 31 percent in 2017. Thirty-two states saw the number of teens in care decline.

In the same time frame, the percentage of foster youth identified as white went up 21 percent. White youth made up 67 percent of foster youth as of 2017, up from 60 percent in 2011.

Sharp Increases Among Native American and Black Youth in Some States
Many of the states with large Native American populations saw a dramatic uptick in the number of Native youth in care as well. And despite the decline in the proportion of black youth in foster care nationally, a number of states saw big spikes in this population.

Rising Role of Relatives
There is no question that as the number of youths entering care rose between 2012 and 2017, the foster care capacity of many states would have been crushed without the open arms of kin. Forty states saw an increase in the number of youths living with relatives between 2011 and 2017, and a staggering 30 of those states saw an uptick of 40 percent or more.

In 2017, there were 24 states where more than a third of children lived with relatives. Just six years earlier, only six states could make that claim.

The role of relative caregivers will only increase with the onset of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which enables states to spend more federal dollars to avoid the use of foster care in some child welfare cases. It is expected that in some instances, kin will be asked to step in on a short-term, informal basis to care for kids while parents get the necessary services.

Unpaid Caregivers
More and more, child welfare systems are relying on foster homes – especially those of relatives – where no financial support comes with the child.

The Imprint combined the number of children living with relatives or non-relatives where $0 is noted; in other words, no official foster care payment is being made on their behalf. We include non-relatives under the assumption that the majority of those taking $0 are fictive kin, such as family friends and neighbors.

The number of youth living in a home without a foster payment attached went up 32 percent between 2011 and 2017, from 81,838 to 108,426.

According to the data, there are some major outlier states that distort this trend somewhat. The vast majority of youth in Florida foster care (85 percent) are in homes not being paid by the state, according to AFCARS. It is possible that the state’s fully privatized system has led to poorly collected or incomplete data on this subject.

The next highest states are Ohio and Missouri, at 46 percent. On the flip side, there are 20 states where less than 10 percent of kids live in this scenario.