May 24 2021

A Brief History of Foster Care in the United States

Original Article by Ashika Sethi

Updated by Shannon Contreras and Emily Witt

Foster care, and the child welfare system in general, are convoluted subjects. These systems are pervasive in our community but seldom understood by the general population. Today, as part of National Foster Care Month, we’d like to highlight how the foster care system has evolved throughout history.

The Origins of Foster Care

The earliest documentation of children being cared for in what we know as foster homes are found in the Old Testament and in the Talmud. Both of these religious texts highlight the importance for society to care for all children, but it wasn’t until the 19th Century that meeting the needs of children was viewed as a societal problem in the United States that needed an organized solution (the care of children was previously seen as a private matter that was left up to the parent’s discretion). The Poor Laws created in England were adopted in the United States, as a means to help families in poverty, by placing children in other homes as indentured servants until adulthood. These laws did little to address child abuse and neglect, unless there was a case of extreme child maltreatment that needed to be addressed by criminal courts. 

Children Aid Societies and the Orphan Train Movement

Orphan Train

Around 1830, a large population of homeless children emerged in big cities in the Northeast. Some children were orphaned after their parents died in epidemics like typhoid and the flu, while others were neglected due to poverty. A minister by the name of Charles Loring Brace founded the “Children’s Aid Society” after he became concerned with the number of homeless children and their living conditions. The Children’s Aid Society mainly operated industrial schools for boys, where they could learn basic education for inexpensive room and board. 

Brace believed that these children would lead better lives out in farm country, so he hatched a plan to dispatch children individually to farms across the Midwest. In 1854, 45 children were transported to various places in the Midwest via railroad and were adopted by local families. Many of these families seldom had background checks before adopting. Once these children were adopted, they were expected to serve as extra help around the farm, in exchange for the adoptive parents to raise them as their own. 

From 1855 to 1875, an average of 3,000 children were adopted via the Orphan Train system. Many children were used as labor on farms, while others were adopted by loving families. Critics of the system railed against the weak background checking of the adoptive parents, as well as the lack of support the system provided for the children after they were adopted. 

More Regulation and Modern Foster Care

In the early 1900s, social agencies began to supervise and screen foster parents by keeping records and considering every child’s individual needs before placing them with a family. 

By the 1900s, the United States government validated the authority of the state to step in and remove a child if they were a victim of abuse or neglect in the home. This established the role of the government in child welfare. Throughout the early- to mid-1900s, several laws were created that gave federal funds for child welfare services and established a department in the government strictly devoted to child welfare. 

Finally, in 1980, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act was established to solidify the federal funding structure for child welfare systems and services and involved the courts to oversee this system. From the 1980s until present day, amendments have been made to this act that increase support of kinship care and create resources for teen youth in foster care. 

In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) was established to add stricter limits to the amount of time a child was allowed to remain in foster care before adoption or reunification. However, critics of AFSA argued that the “real reason children languished in foster care was that too many were taken needlessly from their parents in the first place.” 

At CASA, we’re deeply committed to asking ourselves questions like, “what is keeping this child from going home today?” In an overburdened system, we have the unique opportunity as an agency to investigate placements in a way that can help us ensure we're always doing what is right for each individual child and their unique needs. When safe and appropriate, our goal is always reunification. Our past blog for Child Abuse Prevention Month highlights much of the work we’re doing to create a compassionate and judgment-free environment for children and families involved in the child welfare system. 

The Challenges of Today

Today, there are still major issues within the foster care and child welfare systems, from the foster-care-to-prison-pipeline to the lack of preventative services that can be helpful to families before they reach a crisis point. Children of color are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system across the nation. Teens who age out of foster care at age 18 or 21 face tough outcomes: High rates of PTSD, homelessness, unemployment, and unplanned pregnancy. 

In Texas, the foster care system has been under intense scrutiny in recent years. In 2015, federal District Court Judge Janis Jack ruled that Texas “has violated the constitutional rights of foster children by exposing them to an unreasonable risk of harm in a system where children often age out of care more damaged than when they entered." Then in June of 2020, two court-appointed monitors released a 363-page report which detailed “substantial threats to children’s safety,” particularly in large, privately-run foster homes.  

This led to Judge Jack finding state officials in contempt of court in September of 2020 for not making enough progress on her orders, which include timely investigations of abuse and neglect in foster homes, increased oversight of residential facilities that house children, and improved communication between state agencies. 

In 2021, many of these issues still remain, and have been compounded by a foster care placement crisis in the state, which has only grown worse with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Amid both crises, CASA has continued to show up for every child we serve. We have a team of Child Advocacy Specialists who work only with teens to help them achieve permanency—an age group often at higher risk of being without placement. We’ve also developed a Family Finding Program where dedicated staff members and volunteers work to foster relationships with relatives who may be able to serve as placements or other supports for children. And we have a rigorous focus on the safety of children in the foster care system. Even with the great strides we’ve made at CASA of Travis County, the need for our services continues to become greater in Texas. If you’re interested in being a powerful voice for children in the foster care system, the time is now. You can learn more about volunteering with CASA here! 

2021 May Advocacy

Get involved now