First Entries into Foster Care, by Age Group

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Learn More About Foster Care

Measures of Foster Care on provides the following indicators of children and youth involved in the foster care system:
Other measures related to foster care include:
Foster Care
Child Abuse and Neglect
Childhood Adversity and Resilience
Why This Topic Is Important
Foster care is intended to provide temporary, safe living arrangements and therapeutic services for children who cannot remain safely at home because of risk for maltreatment or inadequate care. The U.S. foster care system aims to safely reunify children with their parents or secure another permanent home, e.g., through adoption; however, too often this goal is not achieved, especially for older youth and children with disabilities (1, 2). Instead, many children spend years in foster homes or group homes, often moving many times (1, 2).

Children in foster care are at increased risk for a variety of emotional, physical, behavioral, and academic problems, with outcomes generally worse for children in group homes (3, 4). Recognizing this, advocates and policymakers have made efforts to prevent children from entering the system and to safely reduce the number of children living in foster care, particularly in group homes (5, 6). While the number of children in foster care nationally has decreased since the 2000s, it has risen in recent years, and California continues to have the largest number of children entering the system each year (1, 7). Further, children of color continue to be overrepresented in the foster care system; in California, for example, African American/black children make up 23% of foster children but only 6% of the general child population (8).
Among older youth exiting foster care, more than half (51% nationwide and 65% in California) age out of the system without being reunited with their families or connected with another family (8). Recognizing the need to support these youth in the transition to adulthood, California and many other states now extend foster care services past age 18, and the Affordable Care Act ensures that health coverage continues until age 26. However, aging out of the system still creates challenges for many youth—a high percentage experience inadequate housing, low educational and career attainment, early parenthood, substance abuse, physical and mental health problems, and involvement with the criminal justice system (4, 8). Continued efforts are needed to ensure these young people have the support, skills, and resources to successfully transition to life as an adult (4, 8).

For more information about foster care, see’s Research & Links section.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau. (2018). Child welfare outcomes 2015: Report to Congress. Retrieved from:

2.  Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2019). Foster care statistics 2017. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau. Retrieved from:

3.  Children Need Amazing Parents (CHAMPS). (2019). Policy playbook (2nd ed.). Retrieved from:

4.  Courtney, M. E., et al. (2018). Findings from the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study (CalYOUTH): Conditions of youth at age 21. Chapin Hall. Retrieved from:

5.  National Conference of State Legislatures. (2019). Family First Prevention Services Act. Retrieved from:

6.  California Department of Social Services. (n.d.). Continuum of care reform. Retrieved from:

7.  KIDS COUNT Data Center. (2019). Children entering foster care in the United States. Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved from:

8.  Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2018). Fostering youth transitions: Using data to drive policy and practice decisions. Retrieved from:
How Children Are Faring
In 2018, 2.4 per 1,000 California children ages 0-17 entered foster care for the first time, a drop of more than 30% compared with twenty years earlier. Across time periods, infants consistently have higher rates of first entry into care than older children. Statewide, the rate of children under age 1 entering foster care for the first time in 2016-2018 (12.2 per 1,000) was more than three times the rate for children ages 1-2, nearly five times that for ages 3-5, and more than 6 times the rates for older groups. Among all children entering foster care for the first time in 2016-2018, 87% were removed from their families due to neglect, 7% due to physical abuse, and 2% due to sexual abuse.

The number of California children and youth ages 0-20 living in foster care on July 1, 2018 was 59,172—a rate of 5.3 per 1,000. Of these, 19,111 were placed in kinship care, 13,229 with foster family agencies, 7,452 in foster homes, and 6,147 in guardianship. At the county level, rates of children/youth in care ranged from 1.2 per 1,000 (Marin) to 18.8 per 1,000 (Trinity) among regions with data. In-care rates for African American/black and American Indian/Alaska Native youth statewide are substantially higher than rates for their peers in other groups—more than 20 children/youth in care per 1,000 in 2018, compared with 5.3 per 1,000 (Hispanic/Latino), 4.4 per 1,000 (white), and 1 per 1,000 (Asian/Pacific Islander).

Among California children under age 18 in foster care on March 31, 2019, 73% had received timely medical exams and 67% timely dental exams. Across counties with data, percentages ranged from 42% to 98% for timely medical exams and from 7% to 95% for timely dental exams.
Statewide, the median length of stay for children entering foster care in 2017 was 17.4 months. After declining from 17.2 in 2001 to a low of 13.2 in 2009, the median number of months in foster care increased in seven of the eight years that followed. For children entering care for the first time in 2017, 34% were reunified with their families and 64% were still in foster care one year after entry.
Policy Implications
Children and youth in foster care interact with a range of public and private systems that can support them and help them obtain permanent, safe homes. Policymakers have an important role in helping to prevent children from entering foster care, ensuring the health and well being of those in care, and facilitating connections and opportunities to enable youth aging out of the system to thrive as adults.

Policy and program options that could help prevent children from entering foster care and improve outcomes for those in care include:
  • Ensuring effective implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which aims to prevent children from entering foster care by authorizing federal reimbursement for mental health services, substance use treatment, and in-home parent education; as part of this, integrating FFPSA resources into a coordinated and comprehensive continuum of accessible prevention services (1)
  • In addition to services for families at risk of involvement with the child welfare system, continuing efforts to build a coordinated, accessible system of high-quality physical and mental health services for children and youth in foster care; such services should be trauma informed and culturally appropriate (2, 3, 4)
  • Promoting efforts to recruit, strengthen, and support foster homes provided by relatives of children in care, removing barriers that make it difficult for relatives to provide care, and, when children cannot be placed with kin, prioritizing placements in other family settings over group settings (5, 6)
  • Continuing to address family separation issues related to immigration enforcement (7)
  • Supporting effective strategies to reduce the overrepresentation of, and improve outcomes for, children of color in foster care (8)
  • Implementing and strengthening laws and child welfare practices to protect and support LGBTQ youth in foster care (9)
  • Continuing to increase awareness of and improve responses to the commercial sexual exploitation of youth in foster care (10)
  • In accordance with California's Local Control Funding Formula, supporting the educational success of foster children by addressing social, health, and academic issues, school enrollment and specialized services barriers, and the need for communication and data sharing; also, ensuring that foster youth have the support and resources to pursue postsecondary education and workforce opportunities (2, 11)
  • Strengthening and ensuring effective implementation of existing laws, programs, and strategies that support foster youth in the transition to adulthood, such as building on lessons learned from early implementation of the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, and increasing youth participation in transition services (11, 12, 13)
  • Incorporating youth voices into foster care decision-making processes and increasing collaboration across sectors (e.g., child welfare, education, health care, juvenile justice, housing, workforce systems, etc.) to better serve the diverse needs of foster youth, including those with disabilities, parenting and pregnant foster youth, those facing homelessness, and other vulnerable populations (11)
For more information, see’s Research & Links section, or visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway or the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2019). Supporting all families: Financing streams to support prevention programs. Retrieved from:

2.  Children Now. (2018). 2018 California children's report card. Retrieved from:

3.  California Department of Social Services. (n.d.). Pathways to well-being. Retrieved from:

4.  Gardner, P. (2017). California's children and youths' system of care: An agenda to transform promises into practice. Young Minds Advocacy. Retrieved from:

5.  Children Need Amazing Parents (CHAMPS). (2019). Policy playbook (2nd ed.). Retrieved from:

6.  California Department of Social Services. (n.d.). Continuum of care reform. Retrieved from:

7.  Desai, N., & Adamson, M. (2018). Child welfare and immigration: Implications for funders. Youth Transition Funders Group, et al. Retrieved from:

8.  Miller, O., & Esenstad, A. (2015). Strategies to reduce racially disparate outcomes in child welfare. Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare. Retrieved from:

9.  Human Rights Campaign. (n.d.). LGBTQ youth in the foster care system. Retrieved from:

10.  Dierkhising, C. B., et al. (2018). Commercially sexually exploited girls and young women involved in child welfare and juvenile justice in Los Angeles County: An exploration and evaluation of placement experiences and services received. National Center for Youth Law & California State University, Los Angeles. Retrieved from:

11.  American Youth Policy Forum. (2017). Supporting pathways to long-term success for systems-involved youth: Lessons learned. Retrieved from:

12.  Courtney, M. E., et al. (2018). Findings from the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study (CalYOUTH): Conditions of youth at age 21. Chapin Hall. Retrieved from:

13.  Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2018). Fostering youth transitions: Using data to drive policy and practice decisions. Retrieved from:
Websites with Related Information
Key Reports and Research
County/Regional Reports
More Data Sources For Foster Care