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E valuating C alifornia’s F oster C are S ystem An Analysis of Possible Factors Impacting the Decline of Youth in California Foster Care Prepared for the Public Policy Institute of California By La Mikia Castillo, Nancy Leu, Stan Oklobdzija and Paul Vu Policy  Research  Briefer    





Decline in Number of Foster Youth   A 45% decline in the number of youth in the California foster care system over the past decade offers hope that more children are being successfully reunited with families and finding permanent homes.

The CA Foster Care Decline 120,000 100,000 Total Entrances Total Exits

80,000 60,000

Total Caseload

40,000 20,000







May  2011  

Possible Explanations Drawing on information gathered through semi-structured interviews and research, we were able to develop a list of possible explanations for the decline, which we divided into two categories: Entrance Related Factors and Exit Related Factors. Entrance Related Factors consist of possible explanations why youth may not be entering the foster care system, whereas Exit Related Factors consist of possible explanations why youth may be leaving the foster care system. Entrance and exit related factors include: Entrance  Related   Exit  Related     Factors   Factors   Funding  Limitations   Effective  Reunification   Fewer  Allegations   Increase  in  Kinship  Care   Lower  Substantiation  Rate   Increase  in  Adoptions   Change  in  Drug  Abuse   Emancipations   Lower  Poverty  Rates  

1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009

0 FIGURE 1: The Foster Care Process Unfounded  



Voluntary   Monitoring  

Source: UC Berkeley Child Welfare Dynamic Report System

While the decline of children in the system appears to be positive, limited research exists on the causes of this decline. Through interviews with practitioners, observations of social workers on the job and discussions with policy experts, we were able to identify several programmatic changes that may have influenced the decline. Using a data set of several key metrics, we analyzed trends over time to see how various demographic, socioeconomic and policy changes may have influenced the decline in the number of children in the child welfare system. We found the following factors to have a possible impact on the decline:  An increase in reunification and adoptions;  A cohort of youth emancipated from the system;  Changes in reunification practices at county-level foster care agencies;  Declining poverty rates in several populous   California  counties.   Our analysis dispels several theories of the declining caseload, such as changing drug abuse patterns and the emergence of new programs to place foster children with kinship caregivers. While by no means an exhaustive survey of all possible causal factors, our study intends to provide future researchers with a useful starting point in examining the decline of youth in foster care. USC School of Policy, Planning & Development




Kinship  Care   Substantiated    

Foster  Care   Adoption  


Understanding the Foster Care Process In California, county child welfare agencies receive more than one-half million reports of suspected child abuse and neglect every year. 1 One in five of these reports are substantiated through investigations of neglect or abuse. 2 The unsubstantiated cases are dismissed or placed in voluntary monitoring, while the substantiated cases result in a child entering into the foster care system. 3 Once in the system, a foster child may exit by: 1) Reuniting with his/her parents 2) Living with a relative caregiver 3) Becoming adopted 4) Emancipating or “aging out” of the system  

Page 1

Research Methodology Both qualitative and quantitative methods were employed to gather information and analyze data pertaining to the decline of youth in care.

TABLE 1: Total Youth in CA Foster Care by County in 2000 vs. 2010 COUNTY



Los Angeles






San Diego



Interviews  Conducted   12  Social  Workers,  1  CA  DSS  Employee   4  Non-­‐Profit  Administrators   3  Professors,  3  Social  Work  Students  

San Bernardino









Quantitative Data Gathering: Foster care data was collected for ten counties throughout the state including Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino, Sacramento, Orange, Fresno, Kern, Alameda and San Francisco. These counties were selected because collectively, they account for 75% of foster youth in the state.4 Furthermore, these counties experienced the largest caseload drops over the past ten years. Using these data, we conducted a longitudinal analysis of caseloads over the decade. Additionally, we were able to assess correlations between children in care and several factors believed to be impacting the decline.










San Francisco






Qualitative Data Gathering: Semi-structured interviews were conducted to gather information from experts and practitioners in the field of social work. In addition, participatory observations were used as a secondary method to develop a better understanding of programmatic changes that may have impacted the decline. Information from the interviews and observations was used to generate hypotheses and steer quantitative research.

Key Policy Change: The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) is a key piece of Federal legislation that drastically altered the foster care system. Prior to the implementation of ASFA, the goal of virtually every foster care case was to reunite the foster children with their families. Due to concerns about children remaining in the foster care system for long periods of time, ASFA required a timeline that expedited the process of finding a permanent home for foster children by terminating parental rights of children who were in the system for 15 of the previous 22 months.5 ASFA not only prioritized the health and safety of children over reunification, it also established kinship care as a viable option for permanent placement, increased the foster care adoption rate and helped reduce the number of children in the foster care system. As a result, between 1997-2000, foster adoption rates nationwide increased 78 percent, with more adoptions taking place in subsequent years.6

Key Findings  

Fam ily Reunifications Increase Family reunification is an important component of the   foster care system. A key assumption underlying child welfare policy is that children are best raised by their   parents and that parents have the “right to direct the care, custody and control of their children, and it is presumed   unless proven otherwise, they will act in a child’s best that, interest.”7 Even when a parent’s rights are suspended because the parent is deemed unfit, the preferred outcome   is the eventual reunification of the family. Over the past 10 years, family reunifications have   increased by 17% of total caseloads in the foster care system. This increase indicates that child welfare services   effectively reuniting foster children with their families. are

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Kinship Care has Sm all Im pact   workers and educators have the impression that the Social Kinship Guardianship Assistance Payment Program (KinGAP)   significantly impacted the decline of children in foster care. They believe that since kinship care became a larger, more formal part of the child welfare system, it has   directly led to a decrease in the number of foster youth.


Kin-GAP Exits







1,000 500 0 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009

  data seems to indicate that the Kin-GAP program only The had a small effect on the decline of the total caseload numbers of California children in foster care. Since the   inception of Kin-GAP in 2000, about 14,000 total children have exited the child welfare system as part of the program. Overall, these numbers account for a small portion of total exits from the system. USC School of Policy, Planning & Development

Impacts of Drugs & Poverty on the Decline 120,000

Perceptions vs. Findings

California Felony Drug Arrests 45,000 40,000





CWS caseload





15,000 10,000


CA. Felony Drug Arrests




Illicit drug use has been identified as a potential factor influencing the number of children that enter the foster care system. Using data from the CA Department of Justice, narcotic and dangerous drugs arrests, we assessed the relationship between drug arrests and the decline of youth in care. We found no correlation.

Caseload Decline and Poverty -60%







Caseload Decline



0% -10% -20% -30% -40% -50% -60% -70%

Poverty and low socioeconomic status have been established as correlates of involvement in the foster care system. We examined numbers of individuals in poverty, as defined by the United States Census, between 2000 and 2009, and looked for correlations with the caseload decline. The decline in poverty rates seems to be somewhat correlated with the decline in caseload across the state.

Through interviews, we were able to gather valuable information pertaining to the perceptions that experts and practitioners have on factors impacting the decline of youth in foster care. Reunification Perception As the ultimate goal of foster care cases, social workers believe that family reunifications are the primary driver behind the decline. Finding Family reunifications increased by 17% of all caseloads, acting as a primary driver of the decline. Kinship Care Perception Social workers, professors and students believe that an increase in kinship care was a primary factor in the decline. Policy changes such as ASFA in 1997 and the implementation of Kin-GAP in 2000 are believed to have facilitated and increased kinship care placements. Finding Kinship care had little impact on the decline. Kin-GAP placements ranged from 4.48 percent of total exits in 2000 to a low of 2.77 percent in 2005. Adoptions Perception According to social workers, adoptions are not a primary goal for foster children. For this reason they perceive adoptions to have little impact on the decline. Finding As a percentage of all caseloads, adoptions increased 9.5 percent over the past ten years.

aSDasd Combined, reunifications and adoptions account for 76% of all foster care exits.

California Types of Exits 100% 90% 80% 70% 60% 50% 40% 30% 20% 10% 0%

Other Emancipated Other Guardianship Kin-GAP Adopted Reunified

  USC School of Policy, Planning & Development

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Increase in Preventive Measures As participant observers in two “Team Decision Making” (TDM) meetings at a Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services office, we were able to witness first hand some of the preventive measures that have been implemented at the local level to reduce the number of children who enter the foster care system. Some services for preventive measures include: parenting classes and therapy, GED/diploma help, medical assistance, welfare assistance and public transportation among others.8 Social workers believe that their efforts to prevent children from entering foster care have impacted the overall decline.

Los Angeles County: Funding and Substantiation Rate 40,000

$180,000,000 $160,000,000 $140,000,000 $120,000,000 $100,000,000 $80,000,000 $60,000,000 $40,000,000 $20,000,000 $-

35,000 30,000 25,000 20,000 15,000 10,000 5,000 0


Key Findings (Cont’d) Adoptions Increase Prior to the late 1990s, adoption of foster children was limited because policies in child welfare emphasized family reunification, no matter how long it took to reunite families.9 Adoption was viewed as a “failure” because it meant families were not reunited. The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 implemented a permanency timeline and termination of parental rights that limited the time a child spent in foster care before alternatives to reunification were considered. This policy change increased the number of children eligible for adoption. Since the implementation of ASFA, there has been a large increase in the number of children who are adopted from foster care. Between 1997-2000, there was a 78 percent increase in adoptions nationwide.10 In California, adoptions increased an additional eight percent between 1998-2009. Cohort Exiting System M ay Explain Em ancipation Rates Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons behind the declining foster care caseload may be the result of an especially large cohort emancipating, or “aging out” of the system. This cohort clustered in the 6-10 year old age bracket as of 1998. Youth aged 11-15 grew from 27 percent of the total “residual” population, (found by subtracting new entrants from the existing caseload) in 1998, to 40 percent in 2005. Emancipations grew from 8 percent of all exits in 2000 to 12 percent in 2009. The raw number of emancipations grew from 3,000 in 1998 to about 4,700 in 2009, a 54 percent growth. Though a more precise data set with individualized data on each youth would allow for more precise analysis, the data seems to suggest that a large group of children began to emancipate, and were steadily exiting the system throughout the decade.

Substantiation Rate

Decrease in Substantiated Allegations Allegations of abuse and neglect have remained stable over the past decade, yet substantiated allegations have declined, while detentions have increased.

Funding Limitations Uncorrelated In theory, the amount of money spent on foster care services could have an effect on either the county’s substantiation rate, or the child’s median time in care. Using Los Angeles County as a test case, we found the relationship to be tenuous, at best. No correlation exists.

Emancipations 5,000 4,500 4,000 3,500 3,000 2,500 2,000 1,500 1,000 500 0

9% 8% 7% 6% 5% 4% 3% 2% 1% 0% 1998

1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008



Implications Our findings seem to imply that changes in policies and practices are positively impacting the decline of youth in the foster care system. While entrance related factors such as drug abuse and funding limitations seem to be uncorrelated with the decline, exit related factors such as family reunification and adoption appear to be driving down the number of youth in the foster care system. These findings suggest that child welfare services are more effectively finding permanent placements for foster children. However, the large number of emancipations remains a concern and implies that more work needs to be done.

Recommendations for Further Research Our primary recommendation is that the PPIC access a larger data set that spans beyond the ten year period available in the Child Welfare Dynamic Report System. This information would be useful in performing more sophisticated statistical analysis of the data, and in identifying the progression of trends over a longer time horizon. Additionally, given the significant changes in practice to focus on prevention, we recommend that the PPIC take a more in depth look at the specific impacts that each prevention method is having on the decline. Page 4


Percent of Total Caseload

References California Department of Social Services, Research and Development Division (2000) Case Dispositions. Retrieved October 13, 2010 from: 2 Danielson, C., & Lee, H. (2010). Foster Care in California: Achievements and Challenges. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California. 3 Anonymous Interview, Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services Employee, March 2011. 4 UC Berkeley Child Welfare Dynamic Report System. Retrieved from: 5 Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). Retrieved October 13, 2010 from: 6 Donaldson, Evan B (2002). Foster Care Facts. Retrieved October 15, 2010 from: 7 Wulcyzn, Fred(2004). Family Reunification. The Future of Children, 14(1), 94-113. Retrieved from: 8 Participatory observation, Team Decision Making meeting, LA County DCFS, April 2011 9 Freundlich, M. (2002). Hope for Kids in Foster Care: Thanks to Changes in Law, More Parents are Taking Another Look at Foster Adoption. Retrieved October 14, 2010 from: 10 Donaldson, Evan B (2002). Foster Care Facts. Retrieved October 15, 2010 from: 1

*All images were gathered using Google images.

USC School of Policy, Planning & Development

Foster Care Briefer