A Temporary Haven: Children and Youth Are Spending Less Time in Foster Care. Length of Time Spent in Foster Care


Data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS) for fiscal years 2006 to 2013 were combined to create an eight-year longitudinal file, out of which three first-time entry cohorts (2006, 2007 and 2008) were identified. Each was followed for five years to identify how much cumulative time a child spent in the foster care system.2

Results indicate that there were few differences between the three cohorts and that, on average, the majority of children had spent less than a total of two years in care since the day they entered.   Over one-quarter spent six months or less in care, and almost half (47 percent) spent less than one year in care.  By the end of two years, slightly more than 7 out 10 of them had been discharged and had not returned by the end of five years from their entry dates.  After three years, gains were more modest, but the downward trend continued.  On average, by the end of five years, only 5 percent of each of the cohorts were still in care (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. Average Percent of Three Entry Cohorts of Children by Categories of Cumulative Time Spent in Care

Figure 2. Average Percent of Three Entry Cohorts of Children by Categories of Cumulative Time Spent in Care

Additionally, 12 percent of the children entered and exited care more than once over the course of five years.  There were some differences in total time spent in care between those who accumulated time in care from one continuous episode (the “single-episode” group) and those whose time was totaled cumulatively over the five-year follow-up period (the “multi-episode” group).  Although both groups had an average time in care of two years or less (24 months for the multi-episode group compared to 17 months for the single-episode group), a higher proportion of the single-episode group (75 percent) than the multi-episode group (55 percent) spent two years or less in care.

2 Preliminary analyses and other empirical studies indicate that the vast majority of children exit in less than three years, and of those few that remain, less than 10 percent are in care longer than five years.   As a result, analyses were limited to a five-year window to allow for all three cohorts to be observed in the data for the same number of years.  Because the more recent data are more reflective of recent policies and practices (and when the rate of first-time entries began to notably decrease), the 2006 cohort is the earliest cohort used and followed through FY 2011.  Consequently, the 2007 cohort is followed through FY 2012, and the 2008 cohort through FY 2013.

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