When most Americans think of foster care, they think of children waiting years in homes or institutions to return to their families or to be placed for adoption. But every year, an average of nearly 17,000 children are removed from their families’ custody and placed in foster care only to be reunited within 10 days, according to a Marshall Project analysis of federal Department of Health and Human Services records dating back a decade. Every state allows certain officials—such as police officers, child-services workers or hospital staff—to take a child from her parents without a court order if they believe the child faces imminent danger of physical harm. But this analysis shows that thousands of children taken from their homes without court approval are quickly returned to their families after child-services officials review the evidence. The data was analyzed with assistance from the nonprofit organization Fostering Court Improvement, which maintains a database of federal child-welfare records. “Short stays,” as they are called by child-welfare experts, appear to happen most often in high-poverty areas where law enforcement officials are the only group authorized by state law to remove children without a court order. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, recorded a higher rate of short-term removals than any other major area in the country, followed by counties that include Santa Fe, Akron and New Orleans.

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