The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) of the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published final regulations for the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) on December 14, 2016. AFCARS collects case-level information from state and tribal title IV-E (child welfare) agencies. Data are reported to ACF by the agencies twice a year. This brief provides our analysis of the final regulations and their implications for states and tribes. Note: States and tribes should consult with ACF regarding definitive interpretations of the regulations.

This is the first change in the AFCARS regulations since 1993. The new regulations capture changes in child welfare laws since 1993, especially the passage of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 and the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act that was signed into law in 2014. The new regulations also establish data reporting protocols that allow ACF to enforce the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) through AFCARS, something ACF only recently concluded it had the authority to do.

Key provisions of the final rule include:

Reporting Populations: Under 2016 AFCARS, agencies will be required to report on two populations: 1) the out-of-home care population; and 2) the adoption and guardianship population.

The out-of-home care reporting population is the same as it was under the 1993 AFCARS requirements, though the 2016 rule clarifies some points that have been confusing to states (such as the status of juvenile justice youth, runaway and homeless youth, youth on a trial home visit and children who reenter care).

The adoption and guardianship assistance reporting population is new and includes any child who is in a finalized adoption under a title IV-E adoption assistance agreement and any child who is in a legal guardianship under a title IV-E guardianship assistance agreement. Agencies continue to report a child through the report period in which his or her title IV-E assistance agreement ends. This is a change from the previous regulation in which a child is reported only in the reporting period during which an adoption is finalized.

Data Structure: The data files are also organized based on reporting population. Title IV-E agencies will submit AFCARS information in two separate data files: 1) the out-of-home care data file; and 2) the adoption and guardianship assistance data file.

The out-of-home care data file includes point-in-time information (such as demographics, parent or legal guardian information), as well as information collected over time (such as living arrangements, removal information, permanency planning). This file also includes data elements related to ICWA.

The adoption and guardianship assistance data file contains elements such as information on the reporting agency, demographic information on the child, type of assistance agreement, payment information, and adoption finalization.

Existing Data Elements: The final rule keeps most of the existing 1993 AFCARS data elements, although frequently the rule revises the allowed responses and modifies data elements to include all historical values for the data element. For example, existing data elements on the child’s placements, permanency plans, circumstances surrounding the child at removal, prior adoptions, and reasons for exiting foster care, among others, are all modified in the new rule. The new adoption and guardianship assistance file has fewer data elements than the 1993 AFCARS adoption file.

New Data Elements: The final rule includes many new data elements, including:

  • information to identify the children to whom ICWA applies, and to collect meaningful information about the experience of children for whom ICWA applies;
  • reporting on LGBTQ populations;
  • data elements related to the types of federal, state or tribal financial or medical assistance a child receives;
  • data related to timely plans to transition out of foster care;
    data on the frequency of caseworker visits;
  • the child’s educational level, educational stability and involvement with special education;
  • new data elements on a child’s health, behavioral and mental health assessments and conditions;
  • reporting on siblings;
  • information on sex trafficking;
  • additional data elements concerning the environment at time of removal;
  • data on pregnant or parenting youth;
  • additional data elements on children with adoptions or guardianship assistance agreements (in the adoption and guardianship file); and
  • additional information on prior adoptions and guardianships and more data on children who exit to adoption or guardianship (in the out-of-home care file).

Compliance and Penalties: The final rule strengthens ACF’s ability to measure and enforce data quality standards. These standards include general standards regarding format and timeliness, as well as specific data quality standards such as an error rate of ten percent or less in five categories: missing data, invalid data, internally inconsistent data, cross-file errors, and tardy transactions. Details on error checks are not in the rule and will be issued through technical bulletins and ACF policy.

Agencies will have an opportunity to amend and resubmit corrected data within six months; should a title IV-E agency fail to meet these standards within six months, ACF will assess penalties as required by statute since 2003. Initial penalty amounts are one-sixth of one percent of the agency’s title IV-E foster care administrative funds. An additional one-fourth of one percent of such funds will be assessed for continued noncompliance.

Implementation Timeframes: States and tribes are to continue reporting under the 1993 AFCARS rules until September 30, 2019. As of October 1, 2019, state and tribal child welfare agencies must submit AFCARS files under the new rules. AFCARS reporting periods remain at October 1 to March 31 and April 1 to September 30. Title IV–E agencies must submit the AFCARS data files to ACF within 45 days of the end of the report period (i.e., by November 14 and May 15). This means that the first submission of data files that must be compliant with the 2016 AFCARS final rule is due no later than May 15, 2020, for the reporting period of October 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020. For a child who has an out-of-home care episode prior to October 1, 2019, the title IV–E agency must report only the date of the child’s removal, the date of the child’s exit and the exit reason for the out-of-home care episode(s) that occurred prior to October 1, 2019.

Record Retention: The rule requires that title IV–E agencies retain all records necessary to comply with the data requirements of AFCARS. Practically speaking, this means the title IV–E agency must keep applicable records until the child is no longer of an age to be in the reporting populations.