May 23 2019

A Brief History of Foster Care in the United States

By Ashika Sethi

Foster care and the child welfare system 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 in May, we’d like to highlight how the foster care system has evolved in the United States.

Religious Texts

The earliest documentation of children being cared for in what we know as foster homes is found in the Old Testament and in the Talmud. Both of these religious texts highlight the importance for society to care for all children.

English Poor Laws

It wasn’t until the 19th Century, however, 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. 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 TrainAround 1830, a large population of homeless children emerged in big cities in the Northeast, including New York City. Some children were orphaned because of their parents dying of epidemics like typhoid and the flu, others were neglected due to poverty.

A minster 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 Michigan, Chicago, Iowa and Pennsylvania 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 a form of slave labor on farms, others were adopted by loving families. Critics of the system railed against the weak background checking of the adoptive parents and for not checking up on the children after they were adopted.

More Regulation and Modern Foster Care

In 1885, Pennsylvania passed the first licensing law that made it a misdemeanor for adoptive homes to care for two or more unrelated children without a proper license. 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. States have been working to formalize this process and create regulations to protect children. 

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” and AFSA did little to address this issue.

The Challenges of Today

Today, there are still 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 in need. 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 including high rates of PTSD, homelessness, unemployment and unplanned pregnancy.

The child welfare and foster care systems aren’t perfect. This is why we at CASA aim to help children in the system by advocating for their best interests and ensuring their needs remain a priority. CASA can be monitoring for and work to close gaps where children’s needs aren’t being met in foster care.

Interested in helping children in foster care? Learn more about how you can speak up for children in the courtroom on our Volunteer page.

May 2019 Advocacy

Get involved now