The drop results primarily from a shift in the policies and practices of state and county child welfare agencies. Many have shortened stays in foster care, expedited adoptions and expanded preventive support for troubled families so more children avoid being removed from home in the first place.
The new figures released by the Department of Health and Human Services show there were 400,540 children in foster care as of Sept. 30. That's down from 406,412 a year earlier and from about 523,000 in 2002.
State by state, the picture was mixed — with some states extending dramatic declines and the numbers in other states rising.
In Pennsylvania, there were 14,161 children in foster care on Sept. 30, down from 15,346 a year earlier and from 21,500 in 2002. In New York, there were 21,473 children in foster care statewide on Dec. 31, down from 26,783 in September 2010.
Both states have been pursuing multiple programs to reduce the numbers — including increased placements of children with relatives in kinship care, greater investment in family-preservation programs so children can stay safely in their own homes, and speedier family reunification if a child is placed in foster care.
Florida implemented similar programs, and took advantage of a waiver that allowed broad flexibility in how it spends federal child-welfare funding.
"We don't want kids in foster care for any reason for too long," Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families, said Monday. "If they can go back home safely we want to get them home quickly and if not, we want to get them adopted."
Florida privatized its foster care system nearly a decade ago, contracting out casework and other services, which experts said contributed to a dip in the ranks of kids in care. Its foster care numbers dropped from about 29,000 in 2006 to under 20,000 for the 2011 fiscal year.
However, the figure has crept up in the past 18 months, from 18,240 in Jan. 2011 to 19,730 last month.
State officials said high profile child abuse cases have resulted in more calls to the state's abuse hotline and more abuse investigations. They also say substance abuse by parents is pushing more kids into foster care.
"In some areas as many as 70 per cent of our investigations are related to prescription drug abuse," Gillespie said.
One of the most beleaguered child-welfare systems at present is Arizona's; the number of children in foster care there rose to 11,535 on Sept. 30 from 9,030 a year earlier. The state's child-protection agency has reported difficulties hiring and retaining qualified staff, and says the risk of child maltreatment has been heightened by economic stress on many families.
In Arizona's Pima County, a government office was converted into a children's shelter on a recent weekend because foster homes and group homes in the Tucson area were full, according to the Arizona Daily Star.
The numbers also rose in Georgia, from 7,023 in 2010 to 7,633 last year. Georgia's Division of Family and Children Services has been strained by budget cuts even as it copes with that increase and with a surge in child abuse and neglect cases.
Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, which seeks to reduce the number of children unnecessarily placed in foster care, noted that the nationwide decline in foster care numbers was smallest since 2006. He also noted that for the time since then, more children entered the system last year than exited from it.
Of the 245,260 children who left the system, 26,286 of them "aged out" without ties to their own parents and with no other home.
Wexler called this number "alarmingly high" and said it reflected "the reckless rush to termination of parental rights that dominated the system in the past."
The new data was contained in the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System report released annually by HHS's Administration for Children and Families.
The average length of stay in foster care has been reduced by more than 10 per cent since 2002, according to the report. The mean stay is now 23.7 months.
Of the children in foster care as of Sept. 30, 52 per cent were boys. Twenty-one per cent were Hispanic, 27 per cent black and 41 per cent white; 104,236 of them were available for adoption.
New data from Administration for Children and Families: http://1.usa.gov/OuGTdF
Kelli Kennedy reported from Miami. She can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kkennedyAP . David Crary can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CraryAPSuggest a correction