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June 2019: VFA Submits Comments on AFCARS

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Download VFA Response Letter

June 18, 2019

Re: Proposed Rulemaking amending the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) System to remove questions relating to sexual orientation (Apr. 19, 2019) [RIN 0970-AC72]

Dear Ms. McHugh:

On April 19, 2019, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration for Children Youth and Families (ACF), issued a Notice of Proposed Rule (NPRM) to amend the NPRM of the 2016 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS) Final Rule (Final Rule). This is the Voice for Adoption’s response.

VFA strongly suggests the Administration of Children and Families implement much needed data collection and move forward with the inclusion of certain data elements to be collected that will provide long overdue improvements in data and information. Needed data elements include first time data on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), education, and health care, with additional information on foster care placements, adoptions and guardianships.

It has been over 25 years since the inception of the AFCARS and this will be the first revision. It has taken over a quarter century to revise and hopefully implement these important AFCARS regulations; this revision must be looked at as both a critical and rare opportunity, that might not come around for another quarter of a century. This new AFCARS data offers an opportunity to inform how policies enacted in recent years regarding foster care placements, human trafficking, health care status, ICWA and most importantly implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act is changing the outcomes of families and children. We strongly support maintaining the 2016 proposed enhancements to AFCARS—particularly as noted below—rather than scaling them back as currently proposed.

Longitudinale Data

While AFCARS point-in-time data is useful for the field, having more longitudinal data will certainly allow for a better understanding of a child’s information for use in decision-making regarding policy and practice in child welfare. Longitudinal data tends to provide both clarity and quality when examining what a child’s experience is in care and can be used to shed light on where new policies and practices may be needed. This change will enhance efforts to achieve improved outcomes for children and families.

Indian Child Welfare Act

Currently, there is little useful data collected at either the state or federal level related to American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) children who are under the custody of state child welfare authorities. Native children are overrepresented in many state foster care systems—in some places by as much as 10 times the general population. The federal protections that ICWA provides these children and their families have the potential to help reduce disproportionality and achieve permanency. The federal protections that ICWA provides these children and their families have the potential to help reduce disproportionality and achieve permanency for more of these children.

We have had no national data collection specific to ICWA in the 35+ years since its enactment so these data elements are long overdue. The revised AFCARS rules will provide access to more detailed, case-level data at the federal level. By examining such data, we can improve technical assistance to states, allocate federal program resources more effectively, and help evaluate the extent to which states are working with tribes to successfully implement ICWA. This data collection will provide clarity about the implementation of ICWA and is necessary for quality enforcement of the law.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Several studies have shown that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) children and youth are over-represented in foster care—in part due to their family’s rejection of them. We also know that these children and youth may face bias in foster care and lack placements where their safety and dignity is assured. To address these core issues, it is critically important that we collect data on the sexual orientation of children and youth in care and determine how their outcomes differ from other children. (We recommend that data on gender identity be collected as well.)

The new Family First Prevention Services Act seeks to reduce and eliminate group home care. Too often the children and youth in these placements have had multiple placements. In some of these cases it is because of their LGBTQ identification. Data that indicates sexual orientation will begin to tell us the profile of the youth in care. We can use this data to better expand and inform our adoption strategies.

This data has great utility. It can be used to explore whether certain states’ policies or practices are shaping the experiences LGBTQ youth are having and identify areas of attention for the federal government. It also provides clarity on these young people’s experiences and how different state procedures may affect them. 

In addition to the data on youth, we believe it is equally important to continue the 2016 data elements on foster and adoptive parents. An adult seeking to become an adoptive or foster parent has the skills to decide whether to respond to questions regarding sexual orientation.

As an organization of adoption agencies, we know of the recent controversies to restrict recruitment practices based on LBGT families. We also know of the need to increase the qualified pool of parents. AFCARS represents the best national database of child welfare information carried out by all the states and regular AFCARS reports on the makeup of the adoptive families and where the shortages in each state will have a practical and important effect on future policies to expand the pool of adoptive families.


We also believe that states and the federal government can benefit from collecting and analyzing data on health, behavioral or mental health conditions; prior adoptions; sibling placements; environment at removal and child and family circumstances at removal; foster family home type and other living arrangements; and location of living arrangements. Through this, we can determine if certain states are succeeding in ensuring safety, permanency, and well-being for children and how their successes can be replicated in other communities.

Although we know that data collection has significant costs, the costs of not knowing what is happening in our child welfare systems is far greater. We are spending billions of dollars to care for and protect children and can learn much about what is working and where further policy and practice changes are needed.


Voice for Adoption appreciates the opportunity to submit these comments on the revisions of the 2016 AFCARS final rule. As we stated in the beginning, we feel this is a critical opportunity to amend the AFCARS data elements for the first time in 26 years. We want to make sure we take every opportunity to adjust this data in a way that will provide critical information that can better inform both policy and practice. We ask that HHS support fully implementation of the 2016 rule, rather than scaling back data collection as proposed.