By Nancy Buckner, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Human Resources
There is rarely an idle moment in the world of child welfare, but this time of year deserves a brief pause for reflection and celebration.
April was National Child Abuse Prevention Month, a chance to spotlight the importance of protecting children from the devastating effects of child abuse. Now, in May, we commemorate National Foster Care Month by calling attention to approximately 5,800 foster children in Alabama.
This month is a special opportunity to celebrate these remarkable children and express gratitude to the foster parents, social workers and advocates who serve incredibly important roles in our communities and our state.
It is also a perfect time to reflect on our collective progress as we map a path forward. One noteworthy measure of consistent improvement is the state’s shrinking foster care population.
Alabama finished fiscal year 2021 with 5,960 children in foster care, the lowest year-end total since 2016. As of April, the amount has decreased even further to 5,830 children.
We at the Alabama Department of Human Resources attribute the steady decrease – which predates the pandemic – partly to our family support services that connect parents of at-risk children with valuable educational, financial, emotional and mental health resources. Services like these reduce the likelihood of children entering foster care in the first place and aid in the safe return of children to their families.
Another factor worth noting is our child welfare system’s continued focus on permanency, a term referring to a plan for a stable, nurturing home environment where a child can live and thrive for the duration of childhood.
A key component of permanency involves helping parents address safety concerns so foster children can return home. We prioritize keeping families together whenever this can be accomplished safely. In fact, more than 71% of foster children who reached permanency in fiscal year 2021 returned to their biological parents or relatives.
In addition, the number of Alabama children transitioning out of foster care and into kinship guardianship each year has increased by more than 300% since 2018. Children in these arrangements live with close relatives, enabling them to remain in their communities and maintain important family connections.
When these options are not possible, adoption may be the best path to permanency for our foster children. The number of adoptions in Alabama reached a record high of 814 in fiscal year 2020. Last year’s 783 adoptions were the second most on record for the state.
Permanency also depends on the willingness of the courts to prioritize child welfare cases on their busy dockets. We at DHR are incredibly grateful to the judges across Alabama who help lead our foster children across the finish line to permanency without delay.
As we reflect on our progress, we also must ask ourselves, “What is our greatest need for Alabama’s foster children?” The answer is clear – we need more foster homes and resources for children and youth of all ages.
Across the country and right here in Alabama, there is a shortage of foster parents to provide temporary safe havens to children in the aftermath of trauma and to offer respite for current foster parents. At this time, 2,360 families are filling this crucial role in our state, but more homes are needed.
I encourage you to consider becoming a foster parent to help a child in need. Your commitment can change a life and contribute to the continued progress of child welfare in Alabama. You can locate more information about foster care by contacting your county’s DHR office or by visiting dhr.alabama.gov/foster-care/.