The number of children in foster homes is plummeting in the District and throughout the region, and the explanation is simple: Governments are practically bending over backward to keep kids out of the system, because research has found that children tend to have better outcomes when they stay in their homes.
Since January 2012, the District cleared 329 children from its foster care ledger, a 19 percent decline. The city's annual budget analysis determined the agency responsible for those reductions, the Child and Family Services Agency, came in at $3.2 million under budget.
Kids are brought into "the system" after child welfare agencies intervene. That can happen for any number of reasons -- a teacher might phone in concerns of abuse to a hot line, or a parent could wind up in jail, leaving a child unattended.
Source: Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments "2011 Foster Care Annual Report"
|The number of children in foster care around the Washington area:|
|Pr. George's County||608||599||592||595|
"Before, we used to have this wide-open front door, and kids would come into foster care and then they would get stuck," said Brenda Donald, who took the helm at the District's Child and Family Services Agency and previously headed Maryland's Department of Human Resources from 2007 to 2010.
Donald estimates that the District spends about $50,000 per child in foster care each year, but, she said, trying to keep children with family members is generally in their best interest, not a penny-pinching approach. Moving into foster care, Donald said, can be a "scary," "traumatic" experience for the child, best avoided if at all possible.
Her perspective matches a national shift. From September 2007 to September 2011, the number of children in foster care in the United States fell from 488,285 to 400,540, an 18 percent decline.
More and more, the focus is on trying to make a child's own home safe or finding a family member who can step in.
"It is a trend we're seeing," said Kamilah Bunn, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' Child Welfare Program manager. "It means kids are ending up with their relatives instead of a stranger's home."
Between 2008 and 2011, Alexandria City, Arlington County and Fairfax County all cut their number of children in foster care. Collectively, they fell from 722 in 2008 to 553 in 2011, a 23 percent drop.
"Everybody is trying different things to keep kids in their homes," said Agnes Leshner, director of Child Welfare Services in Montgomery County, which she said saw a roughly 16 percent drop in the past year.
In 2001, there were 3,200 kids in foster care in the District. Today, there are less than half that number: 1,430.
Besides proactive efforts across the country to try to keep children with their families, there have been cultural shifts, as well. As the crack cocaine and HIV/AIDS epidemics diminish, experts say, households are simply safer.
"When I was a social worker for the city years ago, I saw the number of children in foster care double. I was a social worker for the city when we had crack and HIV and AIDS," said Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells. He said the city had made major strides since then.
"This is really good news for the District of Columbia," he said.