Punitive Justice Systems May Increase Foster Care Rates

Closeup of parent holding child's handStates with more punitive judicial systems may see a higher increase in the number of children in foster care versus states with more generous welfare programs, according to a study published in American Sociological Review.

The study’s authors say punitive states tend to more readily remove children from their homes or place them in treatment centers or other restrictive environments. Even states with similar rates of child abuse and neglect may have different foster care numbers.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, about 415,000 children were in foster care in 2014. Although foster care can protect children, it can also be an added source of stress that disrupts children’s attachments, exposes them to frequent moves, and forces them to adapt to new and sometimes frightening environments. Children in foster care tend to have higher rates of mental and physical health issues.

How Punitive Justice Systems Increase Foster Care Placements

To explore the relationship between foster care placement and approaches to criminal justice and welfare, University of Washington doctoral student Frank Edwards compared state data from 2002-2011.

Edwards found states with the most generous welfare programs annually placed 0.8 fewer children per 1,000 in foster care than states with less generous welfare benefits.

More punitive states were those with a higher number of death sentences, higher incarceration rates, and more police officers per capita. Those had higher rates of foster care placement, placing 1.5 more children per 1,000 into foster care each year. On average, this means about 2,200 additional children are placed in foster care in “punitive” states each year. More punitive states were also more likely to place foster children in restrictive centers such as residential treatment facilities.

The trend included a few exceptions. A handful of southern states had high incarceration rates and low welfare benefits, but also placed fewer children in foster care. Edwards attributes this anomaly to underdeveloped child welfare programs. Some children move in with family members before being taken into state custody, so statistics used in the study might not account for these children.

Between 2002 and 2011, the study’s results show 1.4% of children are in some way involved in the foster care system annually.


  1. Committee on Early Childhood Adoption, Foster and Dependent Care. (2000). Developmental issues for young children in foster care. Pediatrics,106(5), 1145-1150. doi:10.1542/peds.106.5.1145
  2. Foster care statistics 2014 [PDF]. (2016, March). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  3. States with punitive justice systems have higher rates of foster care, study finds. (2016, April 19). Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-04/asa-swp041916.php

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Cecily


    April 21st, 2016 at 11:57 AM

    But some of these parents deserve to have their kids taken away from them! They don’t deserve to get to be a parent in the first place!

  • Cate


    April 23rd, 2016 at 3:36 PM

    But if someone is hurting a child, then what other choice do we have but to punish them?

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