ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10)- If all the children in New York’s foster care program at the end of June were put in the Times Union Center, it wouldn’t leave much room. It would be like going to a packed show there and being surrounded by more than three out of four individuals in foster care, a little more than 84% of everyone in attendance.

The Times Union Center can hold up to 17,500 people, according to its website. As of June 30, 2021, there were 14,749 kids in foster care, the majority of them 5-years-old or younger based on the four age groups represented in the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) Children in Care and Custody of Local Departments of Social Services second-quarter report.

New York has not followed along with national trends. From 2010-2019 the number of foster care kids in the state fell from 26,725 to 16,086. Nationally, the number of kids in foster care rose from 407,856 to a high of 441,190 in 2017 then dipping back down to 426,613 in 2019, according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“New York State is at the forefront of trends in child welfare,” said Northern Rivers Senior Director of Foster Care, Colleen Vogel. “Additionally, the Family First Prevention Services Act is a new piece of federal legislation, which took effect September 29, it’s bringing big changes to the foster care system.”

Northern Rivers works with local departments of social services in 20 counties to place children with foster families. Vogel said they are continually looking for families and/or people to provide foster kids with a safe and welcoming environment.

As stated previously, kids ages 5 or younger are the most likely to be placed in foster care in New York. They were 40% of the state’s kids in foster care with teens over the age of 14 representing the second largest group, 28%, according to OFCS. Kids 6-9 years old represented 17% and kids 10-13 represented 15%. More than half of the kids in foster care at the end of June (52%) were from the New York City area (7,658).

The reason behind a high percentage of young kids in foster care is related to drug abuse, said Vogel. “In our experience, one of the biggest drivers for the higher rate of children age 5 and younger in foster care is a result of parental neglect and maltreatment impacted by opioid and methamphetamine use.”

Vogel said drug abuse is the most likely to impact a young child’s well-being because they need more one-on-one care. “Parental drug abuse impacts the parents’ ability to provide a stable home environment. These young children require more attention than older youth and are more vulnerable to their parents’ diminished caregiving abilities as a result of the abuse of these substances,” she said.

Many teens ages 14 or older, have been in the foster care system for years which is stressful for them but also may affect their ability to be placed in a permanent home, said Vogel. “In the best of circumstances, raising teenagers is challenging. Many teens in foster care actually entered foster care at a young age, and sadly have not successfully returned to their birth family nor have been freed through adoption through family court.”

Although group homes or institutions may come to mind when thinking of foster care kids, most New York foster kids lived in foster boarding and adoptive homes or with family members (85%), with the remaining 15% living in a group setting in June. According to Vogel, there is a good reason for this.

“We have found that minimizing disruption to children’s lives and keeping them in their home communities is the best way to ensure that children stay connected to their support systems and develop networks to help them thrive when they successfully exit the foster care system,” she said.

When it comes down to it, diverse foster parents are needed in every community, said Vogel. “Foster parents may be married or single, LGBTQ+, have biological children in the home or not, be younger or older, and may work outside the home. The most important thing to have is a desire to support children in your own community, be age 21 or older, and be ready to learn,” she said.

The Child Information Gateway is supported by three federal government agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services. They said the average time a child spends in foster care is one to two years. Statewide kids spend an average of 1.67 years in foster care. However, in New York City they spend 1.92 years. Whereas, foster kids in the rest of the state spend 1.42 years in foster care.

Northern Rivers offers training to become a foster parent. Individuals who want to learn more about how to become a foster parent can call Northern Rivers at (844) 855-2273. OCFS also has a webpage that lists the requirements of being a foster parent, as well as other facts. A list of other adoptive agencies in New York can be found on the OCFS website.