The State of America’s Children 2021 – Child Welfare2021-03-28T18:50:03-05:00

The State of America’s Children® 2021

Child Welfare


The child welfare system is in the midst of a paradigm shift that recognizes the critical importance of supporting families so children can remain safely at home and foster care is used only as a last resort. With the historic passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act (Family First) in 2018, states and tribes can now utilize guaranteed child welfare funds to provide certain evidence-based services and programs to stabilize families and prevent the need for foster care.However, Family First, which is still in early stages of implementation, is just the first step to ensure children can thrive with their families.

The U.S. has deeply underinvested in the upstream services that support families and keep them strong, services that extend well beyond the bounds of the formal child welfare system and into housing, economic support, and other critical services, and this was exacerbated in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic. By investing in keeping families strong, we can prevent child maltreatment and give all children the opportunity to thrive.

In 2019, 651,505 children were victims of abuse or neglect, a decrease of 21,643 compared to the previous year (see Table 27). That means, on average, a child is abused or neglected every 48 seconds in America, 1,785 each day.More than half of all child maltreatment cases in 2019 involved children who were six years old or younger, with 14.9 percent of cases involving infants under one.Of these children, 251,359 entered foster care.4

  • Neglect, often a proxy for the consequences of poverty, was the most common reason for children entering the child welfare system. Neglect was associated with a child’s removal in 63 percent of cases. Issues related to unsafe or substandard housing were associated with 10 percent of child removals.5
  • After steadily rising every year since 2008, the proportion of child removals in which parental drug abuse played a role declined in 2019. Parental drug abuse is partly responsible for 34 percent of child removals, while alcohol abuse played a role in 5 percent of child removals.6
  • A common misconception is that physical and sexual abuse are the primary drivers of child welfare involvement, though these serious forms of abuse factor into a smaller portion of cases. Physical abuse was associated with 13 percent of removals and sexual abuse four percent.7

Children in foster care are among the most vulnerable children in America. There were 423,997 children in care in 2019 (see Table 28), 41 percent of whom were under the age of six.These children spend an average of 19.6 months in foster care, with 14 percent spending more than three years in the system.Children of color, particularly Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children, are dramatically overrepresented in the child welfare system. Of every 1,000 white children in the United States, 5.2 are in foster care, compared with 9.9 of every 1,000 Black children and 16.9 of every 1,000 American Indian/Alaska Native children.10

  • Nationally, Black children, are represented in foster care at a rate that is 1.66 times their portion of the overall population, and in 18 states at a rate that is more than double (see Table 29).
  • American Indian/Alaska Native children are represented in foster care at a rate that is 2.84 times their portion of the population nationally. This disproportionality varies by state, with 11 states where the percent of the foster care population that is American Indian/Alaska Native is more than double the percent of the overall child population that is American Indian/Alaska Native, including one state where it is more than 15 times as high (see Table 29).

Children do best when placed with families, preferably their own relatives, but some require a level of mental or behavioral health treatment that can only be provided in a congregate (non-family) setting, such as a group home or child care institution. Congregate care is meant to be temporary treatment, but children are often inappropriately placed in these settings without a clinical need or are held long after their clinical needs are met.

  • Nationally, 11 percent of children in foster care are placed in congregate care settings, with up to 27 percent of children in congregate care in certain states (see Table 30). While this number has been steadily decreasing, the number of children in congregate care increased in 19 states between 2017 and 2018.11
  • More than 2.6 million children live in households headed by grandparents or other relatives without their parents present.12 Approximately 133,000 children in foster care are placed with relatives, and the remainder of these kinship placements occur outside of the child welfare system with little or no government support.13

Foster care is intended to be temporary, with the ultimate goal of returning children safely home to their families. When this is not possible, children must be placed into permanent homes, either through adoption, guardianship, or other arrangements with relatives. In 2019, 248,669 children left foster care after an average of 20 months in care.14

  • In 2019, only 47 percent of children exiting foster care were reunified with their families, the lowest percentage ever recorded (see Table 31).
  • In 2019, 64,415 (26 percent) children were adopted out of the child welfare system, the highest number recorded,15 and 122,216 children were waiting to be adopted.16
  • After steadily declining since 2008, the number of children aging out of foster care jumped by more than 14 percent in 2019, with 20,445 youth reaching adulthood without a permanent family.17 When the system fails to find permanent homes for youth, they are significantly more likely to experience homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration.

More resources are needed to ensure that every child can grow up in a safe, stable, and loving family.
By dramatically increasing investments in family support, we can keep families strong and prevent the need for foster care. Making this early investment will free up necessary resources to improve the child welfare system for the families that do need it, including specialized treatment services to help children heal from the trauma they have experienced and robust supports to help families reunify safely.

COVID-19 Places Unprecedented Stresses on Children, Families, and the Child Welfare System

Stressors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that are detailed throughout this report —economic, housing, and food insecurity, school and child care closures, and decreased access to services and supports—are testing the resilience of families. Stress directly impacts the ability of parents to safely care for their children and an overload of stressors without sufficient support contributes to child maltreatment.18 As the pandemic places unprecedented stress on families, it also made it more difficult for them to access the services that help them to remain strong. In response, the child welfare system has had to rapidly adapt to help children remain safe with their families.

The pandemic weighed especially heavily on older youth in extended foster care and on youth who have recently aged out as they often lack the resources and connections that other young people have relied on to weather this crisis and face staggering levels of job loss and food insecurity.19 Additionally, kin caregivers, especially the approximately 2.5 million kin caregivers raising children outside the formal child welfare system, have been made particularly vulnerable as they are disproportionately older and at high risk from the virus.20

The pandemic has laid bare the fact that too many families were in a precarious position before the pandemic began. It has made clear that we must invest in the strong families and communities that keep children safe.