At this historical point in our country’s reckoning with systemic racism, oppression and colonialism, the U.S. DHHS Administration for Children and Families (ACF) took a step backwards. Specifically, in 2020 the ACF without reasoned justification, rescinded key portions of the carefully developed national standards for the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (the 2016 AFCARS Rule). Rather than recognizing the need to do better on behalf of LGBTQTS+, American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN), Black, and Latinx children who are over-represented in the foster care system, this decision actively blocks efforts to remedy inequities and take care of people in marginalized groups.
As a research and policy center focused on equity in child and family well-being, Partners for Our Children is concerned that without complete AFCARS data, researchers, legislators, administrators, and communities will be unable to document and address the disparities experienced by LGBTQTS+ and AI/AN children and youth.
The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS)
The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System is the only national, comprehensive, case-level data reporting system documenting the numbers, experiences, and outcomes of children in the adoption and foster care system.
AFCARS data are used by researchers, administrators, and others to examine child welfare issues including disproportionate representation of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and LGBTQTS+ children, accurate data on the approximately 500,000 children in care are also important to guide the allocation of an estimated $30B in annual federal, state and local child welfare programming funds.
American Indian/Alaska Native youth
As noted in a recent Op-Ed to the Seattle Times, American Indian/Alaska Native children are overrepresented in foster care at nearly three times, and in Washington state the rate is 3.6 times, their representation in the population. Nationally, AI/AN youth are at increased risk of experiencing multiple placement moves, living unsheltered, sex trafficking, and lower rates of having a permanent home.
To address these inequities, the 2016 AFCARS Rule would have required reporting of data related to children’s Tribal affiliation to help document whether agencies were following the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. ICWA recognizes Tribal sovereignty over affiliated children and requires active efforts to prevent removal. Comprehensive data regarding Tribally-affiliated children would inform decisions about needed workforce training and highlight successful efforts to reduce inequities. These data are not collected, making it impossible to guide data-informed decision-making and note the impact of such decisions.
Lesbian, Gay, Bi-, Trans, Queer and Two-spirited+ (LGBTQTS+) youth
LGBTQTS+ youth are overrepresented in foster care at a rate two-and-a-half times their representation in the population. LGBTQTS+ youth also are at increased risk for disrupted placements, group home placements, homelessness, and sexual exploitation. The rescinded 2016 AFCARS rule had required child welfare agencies to collect voluntary, self-reported data on the sexual identity of foster youth over the age of 14, and data on whether their sexual identity played a role in placement disruptions. Without these data, we will not be able to document discriminatory experiences and disparities in outcomes among LGBTQTS+ youth or decide upon points of intervention for change.
P4C grounds our work in social science research. We know that data represent lives, and we see a disturbing pattern of erasure through data omission on the part of executive branch agencies. Because of this ACF decision, critical data on LGBTQTS+ and Tribally-affiliated children and youth will not be available.
Importantly, the ACF failed to examine the cost of not having these data. What is the cost to LGBTQTS+ children and youth? To AI/AN children, families and Tribes? What is the cost of extended care, of multiple moves, of living unsheltered, and trauma after aging out of foster care?
The ACF reversal of the carefully developed national standards for AFCARS is even more troubling as it mirrors a pattern of erasure through data omission that we have witnessed elsewhere. For example, after initially arguing they would need an extension to do an accurate count during the pandemic, the US Census Bureau reversed itself and ended data collection early. Undercounting in Census data and omitting data in AFCARS silences marginalized groups and has long-lasting implications for federal funding allocations, research, and practice.
We are at a tipping point in the struggle for equity and social justice and lives are in the balance.