At its core, foster care is the process of moving children from a potentially unsafe home to a safe home. Ideally, children stay close to their family, but this can’t always happen. Sometimes children might have a grandparent or an aunt who is willing to care for them in another part of the state - which is usually preferable to a nearby foster parent they don’t already know. In other cases, children might be placed farther away from home due to a lack of licensed foster homes that can meet their unique needs. As with almost all aspects of the child welfare system, choosing where to move children can get complicated.

At Partners for Our Children, we want to tell stories with data – and try to “uncomplicate” the issue for you. We know that a table of numbers isn’t going to speak to the masses, so our goal is to repackage these numbers to clearly convey what is really going on in the child welfare system. Today, we are sharing a few different ways to visualize how far foster children move from their homes in Washington State.

Our first visualization is called a network map. Facebook used this approach to visualize the connections of its users, which interestingly revealed a well-defined map of the world. We can apply this same approach to the movement of foster children in Washington State. In our case, instead of plotting the connections between Facebook friends, we are plotting the original location and current location for foster children in Washington State. The map below displays the movements of all children placed in out-of-home care in Washington State on January 1, 2014.Not surprisingly, the map shows that most of the movement activity is taking place in urban areas. Perhaps within these urban areas, children are moving relatively short distances? Since the population is higher in these areas, could it be due to the fact that there are just more children placed into foster care? Both ideas would create the dense black areas we see on the map. Whatever the case, some children have made relatively long moves – for instance, from Seattle to Spokane or vice versa.

To better visualize these dense black areas from the network map, we can also use a plot graph. In this graph, we rank zip codes from west to east and plot a point for each movement taking place between zip codes. Darker dots show the movement of multiple children, perhaps a group of siblings. For example, if a child is removed from their home in Olympia and placed in a foster home in Olympia, their point would be plotted where you see the red star below. As you can see, this graph shows a clear picture of a line, which means that children actually stay relatively close to their family home when placed in foster care – a trend that might look more obvious in this graph than in the network map.

But perhaps the simplest way to understand the distance between a child’s family home and their foster home is by calculating the mean (average) distance, which was about 24 miles at the start of this year. In other words, most children are placed relatively close to their homes. As shown in the histogram below, this is particularly true for children in Kinship (family) or Foster Care placements. Sometimes, however, children must be placed in specialized facilities which may require moving a child further from their home (a mean of over 50 miles in the case of children placed in Group Care settings). While a child’s placement setting does not account for all of the long distance moves, it does appear to be related to several of them.

So why does this matter? It matters because children do better when there is as much normalcy as possible in a process that can be traumatic. If normal means staying at the same school, then it’s important to try to find a foster home close to it. If normal means living with someone they trust like a grandparent, then traveling a longer distance shouldn’t be a problem. Visitation by the parents is also an important factor to consider. More often than not, staying close to home is ideal, but movement is not always a bad thing. Whether it’s a foster home two blocks away or 200 miles away, social workers make an assessment and try to find a home that best fits the needs of the child.

So which data visualization do you think tells the story best? Are there any other aspects of the child welfare system that you want us to tackle in a future blog post? Comment below or email us at  

Data Notes: This blog post uses data provided by DSHS Children’s Administration through POC’s data-sharing agreement. We would like to note that the data:

  • Represents all children and youth who were removed and placed into out-of-home care on January 1, 2014;
  • Includes all youth regardless of initial placement type or legal custody;
  • Excludes youth removed over the age of 17; and
  • Represents all types of current placement settings.