Every Child Counts: Trump Administration Undermines Child Welfare’s Ability to Serve All Children Well through Final AFCARS Rule

A Statement from Judith Meltzer, President of the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP)

Washington, DC (May 12, 2020)—Our nation’s child welfare systems rely on data about the characteristics and needs of children and families in order to make the most well-informed decisions about what services and supports children need to thrive. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration believes that only some children and youth deserve to be counted. Today the Administration published the rule finalizing revisions to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), the federal child welfare database and an essential tool for collecting national, state, and tribal data to inform policy and practice decisions.

The Trump Administration rule throws out important data elements included in the 2016 final rule to modernize AFCARS data standards. This retrenchment creates real consequences for children and families; by preventing the collection of complete data, policymakers cannot see a full picture of the families they are serving, thus preventing them from making the best and most effective policy and practice decisions. The rule specifically eliminates data collection related to sexual orientation and gender identity for youth in foster care and foster and adoptive parents in the child welfare system—data that are essential to understanding and supporting recruitment and retention of diverse foster and adoptive families. The Trump rule also makes data reporting changes that undermine the intent of the Indian Child Welfare Act (IWCA) to keep tribal families together and to respect the unique needs of tribal communities.

Why this Matters: LGBTQ+ Children. It is widely known that AFCARS data are incomplete; lacking information about the needs of the children, youth, and families served and limiting the information available to design effective, targeted solutions to promote safety, permanency, and well-being. For children and youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ+), the data that are available have been collected through smaller surveys and have highlighted the significant disparities that exist for these young people. Unfortunately, without a formal and safe mechanism for collecting data about these youth, research indicates that many state systems underestimate the number of LGBTQ+ youth in their care and their disparate experiences. Without knowing how many youth in care identify as LGBTQ+ and understanding the prevalence and depth of their experiences—including higher numbers of placement changes, lower rates of permanency, and high rates of placement in congregate care settings—child welfare systems cannot develop policy and practice strategies and evidence-based interventions to meet their unique needs. More than that, without understanding and planning to meet their unique needs, systems that are intended to protect and promote their safety, permanency, and well-being may inflict more harm.

Why this Matters: Native Children. The Administration’s removal of data elements related to Native children is a continuation of a racist policy agenda they have advanced across family policy. This decision undermines the experiences of Native children, and the ability to ensure compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which was enacted in response to the systematic and intentional dismantling of Native families and communities. American Indian/Alaska Native children are disproportionately involved in child welfare at twice their rate in the general population—and up to 10 times their rate in certain communities. Data collection on the experiences of Native children is a prerequisite to understanding the inequities they face, agency failures in enforcing ICWA, and designing effective responses toward racial equity in child welfare. By eliminating data on the experiences of Native children, the Administration is preventing the effective implementation of ICWA, which will continue to cause harm to these children through longer stays in foster care and being disconnected from their tribal communities.

Every single child deserves to be counted—and affirmed in their entire identity. This is critical to ensuring positive outcomes for children involved in child welfare and promoting equity. The Social Security Act states that AFCARS data should and must “promote improved knowledge on how best to ensure strong, permanent families for children.”[1] Without data that can be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, ICWA eligibility, gender and age, a detailed understanding of the experiences of children and youth in child welfare is impossible. This isn’t merely a conversation about data, this is part of our collective responsibility to confront discriminatory practices and promote well-being for the children and youth in care. Until we can responsibly collect data that sheds light on the diversity of populations and needs of children and families involved with child welfare, we will be limited in our ability to uphold our legal and moral obligations to these children and youth.

About CSSP. The Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) works to achieve a racially, economically, and socially just society in which all children, youth, and families thrive. We translate ideas into action, promote public policies grounded in equity, and support strong and inclusive communities. We advocate with and for all children, youth, and families marginalized by public policies and institutional practices. Learn more at www.CSSP.org.

[1] Sec. 479. [42 U.S.C. 679] (d). P.L. 113–183, §208 inserted new subsection (d). Effective September 29, 2014.