Understanding The New York City Foster Care System

foster mother with foster child
Happy foster parent with foster child

The New York State foster care system provides temporary care for children whose parents are unable to provide for them, for various reasons, such as abuse or neglect. The system operates under the jurisdiction of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) and is divided into several foster care agencies that provide services to children in need. In this article, we will focus on the New York City foster care system, its history, evolution, statistics, criticisms, and reforms.

History and Evolution of the Foster Care System

The New York City foster care system has a long and complicated history, with its roots dating back to the late 1800s. At that time, child welfare advocates were pushing for the creation of a state agency to oversee the care of neglected and abused children. The result was the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which was founded in 1875. In 1925, the state of New York established the Department of Welfare, which later became the OCFS, to provide comprehensive services to families and children in need.

In the early days of the foster care system, children were often placed in institutions or orphanages. Many of these institutions and orphanages were under the auspices of churches and religions. However, this approach was criticized for its lack of individualized attention and inadequate care. The foster care system began to shift towards family-based care in the 1960s, and this trend has continued to the present day.

Statistics About Foster Care Placements And Outcomes

According to the OCFS, as of March 2022, there were 9,798 children in foster care in New York City. Of those, 48% were Black, 28% were Hispanic/Latino, and 17% were White. The average age of children in foster care was 9.5 years old. There are approximately 60 foster care agencies in New York City that are contracted by the OCFS to provide services to children in need.

In terms of outcomes for children in foster care, the OCFS reports that in 2021, 45% of children who exited foster care were reunified with their birth parents, while 28% were adopted. The remaining 27% were either transferred to another agency or aged out of the system.

Criticisms Of The New York City Foster Care System

Despite the best efforts of foster care agencies and caseworkers, the foster care system is not without its critics. One major criticism is the high cost of foster care, both in terms of the financial burden on the state and the emotional toll on the children in care. In 2018, the cost of foster care in New York State was estimated to be $3.1 billion.

Another criticism is the length of time that children spend in foster care. The longer a child remains in care, the more likely they are to experience negative outcomes, such as mental health issues and difficulties forming attachments to others. In New York City, the average length of stay in foster care is 20 months. While federal legislation was passed creating short time frames for outcomes, these federal regulations are viewed by some critics as making it even more difficult for parents to regain custody of their children.

Lawyers who represent parents  whose children have been removed soon learn that, although foster care is supposed to be a temporary, with the focus on returning the children to parents, some foster parents, especially ones who are unable to have children of their own, will fight very hard to keep the children and adopt them, and sometimes the foster care workers become advocates for the foster parents, instead of for the natural parents. 

There have also been criticisms about the progress of older children who have not been adopted and most likely will never be adopted. These children often end up in group homes, and when they finally age out of the system are at risk of becoming homeless. 

There have also been criticisms of the foster care system’s handling of cases of abuse and neglect. Some advocates argue that the system is too quick to remove children from their homes, without providing adequate support to families to address the underlying issues. Additionally, there have been cases of children experiencing maltreatment while in foster care, highlighting the need for better oversight and training for foster parents and caseworkers.

Reforms And Attempted Reforms (Focusing On New York City)

In response to these criticisms, the foster care system has undergone several reforms in recent years. One major reform is the implementation of a “family first” orientation, which prioritizes keeping families together whenever possible. This approach involves providing more support and resources to birth parents to help them address the issues that led to their children being placed in foster care. This can include services such as parenting classes, therapy, and job training.

In the experience of attorneys who represent parents in Family Court neglect, abuse, and termination of rights cases, the New York City foster care system is in many respects driven by media coverage of system failures that are blamed in the media for abuse and even death of children in foster care. Typically, after each big news story, the New York Agency in charge renames itself and changes are made, but critics believe that over time changes and reforms tend to fall by the wayside, and things revert to the way they have before.

For example, some years back, it was decided that children should be placed with agencies that are located close to the parents’ homes, in order to facilitate regular visitation, and this was made a major priority for some years, but then was mentioned less and less when decisions were made about initial placement.

On the other hand, reforms, both by the state legislature, and the Courts have emphasized the increased use of kinship care, which involves placing children with relatives or close family friends, rather than with strangers in foster care. This approach is believed to provide children with a more stable and familiar environment, which can lead to better outcomes. The legislature acted by expanding the definition of “kin” to include non-relatives and other resources who have had a relationship with the child or children and have volunteered to be resources. These resources are now able to become kinship foster parents and receive aid, including funding.

Additionally, there have been efforts to improve the training and support provided to foster parents and caseworkers. Foster parents are required to undergo a rigorous application process, including a home study and background clearance, to ensure that they are capable of providing a safe and supportive environment for the children in their care. Caseworkers are also provided with training and support to better address the complex needs of the children and families they work with. Both the salaries and educational requirements have increased over the years, although the salaries have by no means kept up with the very high inflation that took place after the pandemic.

The government has also been working to improve accessibility to information and services for families and youth involved in the foster care system. The OCFS has launched a website, the Statewide Central Register (SCR), where people can report suspected child abuse or neglect, as well as access information about foster care agencies and services. The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) has also launched a mobile app, ACS Connect, which allows parents and caregivers to view case information, communicate with their caseworkers, and access resources.


The New York City foster care system has undergone significant changes over the years, from its early beginnings as institutional care to its current focus on family-based care. While the system is not without its flaws and criticisms, there have been efforts to improve outcomes for children and families involved in the system. These reforms include a “family first” orientation, increased use of kinship care, and improved training and support for foster parents and caseworkers. The government has also been working to improve accessibility to information and services for families and youth involved in the foster care system.