The Foster Care Crisis is Our Problem

John Kristof
11 min readJan 9, 2019


“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” — Nelson Mandela

Child protection agencies confirm about 2.5 million cases of child abuse or neglect each year. Social workers intervene to help parents develop better habits and parenting skills in the hope of creating a safe, nurturing environment for their children. Although most child service workers and researchers agree that remaining with their biological parents during this time is usually best for a child’s development, some environments are too damaging, and the children need to be removed. Less than a third of children removed from their biological parents are able to stay with a family member, leaving the rest to institutional care or non-relatives — foster families. With roughly 270,000 to 300,000 children entering the foster care system every year, it is difficult to overstate children’s need for hospitable homes.

Some analysts anticipate this need will grow further as the opioid crisis continues. Over 60,000 Americans died overdosing on drugs in 2016, about 40,000 of whom used opioids, a 21 percent increase over 2015 and constituting the deadliest drug crisis in American history. The number of babies born addicted to opioids has quadrupled over the past 15 years. At the end of fiscal year 2016, the foster care system had custody of 437,500 children, an increase for the fourth straight year. Parental drug abuse was a more significant contributor to the spike of children in the foster care system than any other factor.

While much work is being done to tackle the drug epidemic itself, hundreds of thousands of children still need immediate attention. Because they cannot find stability and care at home, they need to receive them elsewhere. These are not just pleasant things for children to have — they are crucial for children’s development and long-term wellbeing.

Children need support

Without intervention, children in the foster system face a bleak future. Nearly half of foster kids will never graduate from high school. After aging out of the system, two out of every three foster kids will be homeless, go to jail, or die within one year. Some estimates suggest four out of five inmates in the prison population spent time in the foster care system. Keith Howard, state director of Arrow Child and Family Ministries in the Texas Panhandle, emphasizes that these numbers reveal how we are failing foster kids: “When we never engage that child and break the cycle, we in turn empower that cycle.”

Foster children who do succeed echo Howard’s comments, pointing to strong social support systems as crucial to their journey. For Shawn Flores, who aged out of the Texas foster care system and is now attending a local college, having someone to depend on — “having that knowledge that someone is there that loves them and cares about them, that stabilizing force of knowing there’s someone who cares and is going to be there” — made a world of difference.

Engaging children of volatile home circumstances can quite literally change their lives. It doesn’t require a hero to provide the love and support these kids need. They, like the rest of us, need love and compassion. They need someone to “be there” when their families cannot.

The National Fatherhood Initiative identifies three simple traits children need from their parents or caregivers. They must be involved, giving time and energy to the child; responsible, being a good role model and keeping the child safe from physical and emotional danger; and committed, being reliable and keeping promises to the child and the child’s family.

Involvement can vary depending on a child’s situation. Some have loving, hardworking parents but need a mentor to walk alongside them as they grow. Family friends or extended family members can sometimes fill this role. Many other children are benefiting from formal mentoring programs, which are growing across the United States. Mentoring relationships are proving to improve at-risk children’s self-esteem and habits. Kids with mentors or role models do better in school, are more likely to graduate, and are less likely to get involved with dangerous substances and delinquent behavior.

As articulated above, however, hundreds of thousands of children a year need more than another role model — they need a family. This need might be temporary or permanent, depending on how possible reunification with their biological family might be. Most child services departments in the United States have the explicit priority of reunifying children with their parent or parents if at all possible. Only when parents are clearly unable to provide a healthy, safe place for their children to grow are parental rights terminated and permanent placements sought. For example, child services may offer parents struggling with opioid addictions counseling and parenting classes, and once the parents are clean, their children can be returned to their care. On the other hand, if parents continue to show parental incompetence, child services may request to a judge that parental rights be terminated, which would allow children to be adopted, ideally bringing some health and stability to their lives.

Foster care

According to the Children’s Bureau, of all foster children in temporary placement in the United States, about a third live with extended family members, according to the Children’s Bureau, which roughly translates to two in three foster children needing some form of outside aid to find a safe and stable home. Non-relative foster parents house 45 percent of foster children, and 12 percent of foster children reside in group homes or other institutions.

The painkiller epidemic has proliferated foster cases across the nation, especially in the rust belt. For addicted parents, getting their children back requires proving sobriety for an extended, uninterrupted period. Child service departments hope and expect these drug-based foster cases will be temporary, but such cases have overloaded foster care systems across the country, causing backlog and extended displacements of children.

As group homes continue to decline, the need for foster families rises even further. While research and data confirmed that children do better in family environments, group homes dwindled. From 2012 to 2017, 25 of the 34 states with relevant available data experienced a decrease in foster care capacity, according to the Chronicle of Social Change. Some states increased their dependence on extended family members to offset this shortage, causing the share of foster children placed with kin to rise from roughly one quarter a decade ago to today’s 32 percent.

Changing federal foster care policy makes the need for foster families even more urgent. The Family First Prevention Services Act, passed in February 2018, reformed how states can spend their $8 billion in federal funds for child abuse prevention. More money is available for preventative care, providing vulnerable families with at-home parenting classes, counseling, and substance abuse treatment. By assisting struggling families before neglect or abuse occurs, these programs might ease some of the burden on foster care systems. At the same time, the Family First Act limits funds available for funding group homes for foster children, meaning children that do end up in the foster system will be increasingly dependent on volunteer parents.

The need for foster families is clear and immediate. Why the shortage continues is somewhat elusive. States estimate causes so they can strategize how they might improve their recruitment efforts. Some report demographic shifts, where some veteran foster parents are slowing down and retiring, and the younger generation is hesitant to enter foster parenting. Others suppose parents are worried about costs or overwhelmed by the licensing process.

Regardless of the reasons, the foster care crisis has become too big to ignore, and for the sake of the next generation, Americans cannot continue to treat the issue as someone else’s problem to fix. As described above, hundreds of thousands of children who enter and pass through the foster system every year experienced loss and instability that impacts them throughout their lives. Research has demonstrated the intervention of a dependable, supportive adult figure can radically improve an at-risk child’s mental and emotional health, academic achievements, and future relationships. Foster parents are desperately needed and have the potential to make a tremendous impact not only on foster children but also on future American society.


For a variety of reasons, some foster children are unable to return to their parents and need a permanent solution: adoption. About one in four children in the foster care system are waiting to be adopted, but just a third of that total will be adopted within a year. Insufficient adoptive families forces foster children into extended periods of uncertainty and instability, which, again, are among the most significant obstacles a child can overcome.

Over 60 percent of foster children seeking adoption wait two in five years before finally being adopted. Various traits within a child seem to extend his or her adoption wait time. The likelihood of a child being adopted drops as a child ages — the average age of a foster kid is about eight years old, but 80 percent of adopted foster children were adopted before the age of six. Siblings who need to remain together are less likely to be adopted, as fewer families are willing to adopt multiple children at once. Disabilities or medical issues also are usually detrimental to a child’s adoption chances. Some research from the University of Vermont suggests white families are more likely to seek to adopt Caucasian children. This phenomenon, if it indeed exists, is immensely problematic for the overall foster adoption process, where 73 percent of adopting parents are white compared to just 37 percent of foster children waiting for adoption.

It is estimated that 20,000 foster children free for adoption will never have an adoptive family, meaning they will “age out” of the foster system. Details can vary from state to state, but usually, children are emancipated from the foster care system when they turn eighteen. They are guaranteed very little, perhaps given a few hundred dollars and sent on their way. While legal adults, these children rarely have the resources or social capital to land on their feet out of foster care. Because they had nowhere to go before they aged out of the system, it is difficult for them to find a home outside of it. It is no surprise that one in five of these children enters adulthood homeless.

Beginning life post-foster care without a home often starts a steep downward spiral that proves difficult to overcome. Emancipated foster children struggle to earn the education and skills they need to be attractive employees. Only half of them will be gainfully employed at age 24, and just three to six percent of them have a college degree at age 25. These former foster children are especially prone to turn to substance abuse; half of them will develop an addiction at some point.

In short, if there is something more difficult than growing up as a foster kid, it is aging out of the foster system without a home. But for foster children who cannot go back to their families, adoption is positively life-changing. Adoption requires an intentional decision to commit to the wellbeing of someone else’s child, and if there is any child that needs that kind of commitment, it is a foster child. Studies of life outcomes of adopted children show adopted children match their peers in academic performance, mental health, positivity, and low delinquency rates.

It should be noted these effects are stronger when the child is adopted at birth. To be sure, children can struggle to varying degrees during the transitions of adoption. Some struggle with processing their identity and sense of belonging, which can manifest in behavioral or relational issues. For this reason, fewer adoptive parents report being as satisfied as they expected when they adopt older children relative to younger. But crucially, children of all ages report the same levels of happiness and satisfaction when they are adopted. With patience and support to the child from the parents and to the parents from the community, adopted children of all ages flourish.

Getting involved

Thankfully, countless organizations across the country are helping families give children temporary and permanent homes. Each state’s child services department works with various foster placement and adoption agencies. To find a local organization in your state that matches your family’s needs and values, visit the Child Welfare Information Portal at

To best ensure foster children are going to safe, nurturing homes, states have eligibility requirements for prospective foster parents. These details vary by state, and sometimes by county, but a few steps are universally expected. Per the National Foster Parent Association, foster families must:

· Provide 24-hour care and supervision on a daily basis.

· Be financially sound regardless of any stipends that might be granted to offset some childcare costs.

· Be flexible, patient, and understanding.

· Have a safe, hazard-free home.

· Pass a criminal background check.

· Be willing to work with the child services department toward the best interests of the child.

As an Ad Council campaign noted, you don’t have to be the perfect parent to be a good parent. Millions of families in the United States are perfectly capable of meeting these requirements and giving a safe, nurturing home to foster children.

Once you have found an agency you are comfortable working with, be it public or private, contact them and tell them of your desire to be a foster parent. You will likely meet with the agency several times before you house your first foster child. Through this process, the agency will help you determine whether you fit your region’s licensing requirements and guide you through the paperwork to become licensed. Additionally, the agency will learn more about your family, which helps them know which of their foster children might be the best fits for the children and your family.

Adoption is a separate procedure. Like the foster care system, rules governing the adoption process vary by state. Also like the fostering process, the process starts by contacting an adoption agency who can guide you through the approval and training process. AdoptUSKids, an operation of the Adoption Exchange Association, offers information about adoption regulations in your state as well as referrals to local adoption agencies.

Families interested in adoption should know that the approval process is more extensive than that of foster care. This training also varies by state, but it always intends to prepare the adopting family for their new child, facilitate a productive and open relationship between the family and the agency, and develop supportive relationships between adopting families. Adoption agencies also must perform home studies of prospective families. Over three to six months, they will gather information about the family’s background, financial stability, daily habits, social life, home and neighborhood, and references. At this point, the adoption agency has enough information to find the best match between child and adopting family. If a family wishes to adopt a child they are already fostering, the match is already made, and the agency has the assurance that the family is a great long-term placement for the child.

What love can do

Fostering and adoption disrupt cultural expectations of family and parenting. They come with challenges and difficulties only other foster and adoptive parents can understand. But there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of parents in the United States very capable of caring for a child in need. Too many of them dismiss fostering or adoption before fully investigating their options. In fact, the Adoption Network reports that although a third of Americans have considered adopting, only two percent have actually followed through.

These children do not need saviors. They do not need people who know how to fix trauma or help kids return to normal. Children needing foster or adoptive parents need the same things as every other child: unconditional love, dependability, and support. As one adoptive mother stated, “I thought I could take children who had been seriously hurt and give them unlimited love and fix them. I’ve learned that we can’t fix them. All we can do is give them love and support and fight for them to get the services they need. We can’t protect them from what’s already happened to them.”

Much of the information and support systems to help compassionate families help children are here. The missing piece is people saying “yes.”



John Kristof

An education and fiscal policy researcher who has published political and economic commentary in a variety of outlets. See also and @jmkristof.