The number of U.S. children in foster care is climbing after a sustained decline, but just five states account for nearly two-thirds of the recent increase. Reasons range from creation of a new child-abuse hotline to widespread outrage over the deaths of children who’d been repeatedly abused. Addictions among parents are another major factor.
The most dramatic increase has been in Georgia, where the foster-care population skyrocketed from about 7,600 in September 2013 to 13,266 last month. The state is struggling to provide enough foster homes for these children and keep caseloads at a manageable level for child-protection workers.
Along with Georgia, the states with big increases are Arizona, Florida, Indiana and Minnesota. According to new federal figures, the nationwide foster-care population went up from 401,213 to 427,910 between September 2013 and September 2015, and these five states accounted for 65 percent of that rise.
In all five, a common factor driving the increase has been a surge of substance abuse by parents.
In Florida, for example, officials said that a crackdown on abuse of prescription drugs has prompted more parents to turn to heroin and other illegal opioids, leading to the removal of their children from home. Florida’s foster-care population increased by 24 percent between 2013 and 2015; nationally the increase was less than 7 percent.
In Georgia, parental substance abuse now accounts for about 38 percent of foster-care entries. That was the focus of a recent briefing in the state Senate, where a county child-welfare official reported, “We recently rescued an 8-year-old boy who graphically disclosed being raped on a regular basis in his home where he lived with his father in a ‘drug house”’
Child-welfare officials cite two factors beyond drugs.
In Georgia, one is a centralized statewide child abuse hotline, created in 2013 to replace the 159 different hotline numbers that were used in Georgia’s counties. Since then, abuse reports have increased by 30 percent to more than 110,000 per year, and the number of abuse investigations has nearly doubled.
Another factor has been public outrage after some highly publicized cases in which children died from severe abuse even though caseworkers had prior indications that they were at risk. In Minnesota, a 4-year-old boy named Eric Dean who died in 2013 after repeated abuse by his stepmother. In 2014, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran an in-depth story reporting how Eric’s plight drew little scrutiny despite 15 separate abuse reports being lodged with social workers.
“Now we’re erring on the side of removing the child from home, rather than doing everything we can to preserve the family,” said Lilia Panteleeva, director of the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota.