Foster Care: Background and History

Foster care is a system that provides temporary care for children who are unable to live with their birth parents. The history of foster care goes back thousands of years. Records from ancient Rome address the care of foster children. 

Many religions, including the early Christian church and Judaism, encourage the care of orphaned children. Early Christian church records indicate orphaned children lived with widows paid by the church. Even in ancient Rome, there is evidence of wealthy families taking in children who were abandoned or orphaned.

Read on to learn more about the background and history of foster care in the United States.

Early Foster Care in the US

English Poor Laws in the late 1500s allowed for the placement of poor children into indentured service until they became adults. This practice was imported to the United States and marked the beginning of placing children into foster homes. Despite its potential for misuse, indentured service was in many ways a step up from almshouses. Indentured service allowed children to acquire a trade. In contrast, almshouses often subjected children to unhealthy, unsanitary environments and maltreatment from caregivers.

At the time, children were placed into these homes because their parents or guardians had died. Child abuse was largely socially accepted and legal. Today, foster children are often removed from a home due to abuse rather than because they were orphaned.

Foster Care in the 1800s: Early Orphanages

The modern-day foster care system in the United States began in the late 1800s. At the time, child welfare was not a priority. Many children were left to fend for themselves on the streets. This was especially true for many immigrant children.

In 1853, Charles Loring Brace, a minister, founded the Children's Aid Society in New York City. After seeing so many immigrant children sleeping in the streets, Brace started the Orphan Train Movement. As a result, over 150,000 orphaned children in New York City were sent by train to farms across the country, primarily in the Midwest.

In the farming system, the treatment of children varied widely. Some were embraced with warmth and dignity. Others were subjected to harsh labor and mistreatment akin to slavery. Regardless, given its focus on providing a family environment for neglected and mistreated children, Brace's method laid the groundwork for the modern family foster care system.

Foster homes in New York City in the 1800s were often abusive. In the 1870s, a young orphan born Mary Ellen Wilson received daily whippings and beatings at her foster home. There was no organization to protect abused children, so the attorneys for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) took on her case. Her attorneys argued that laws protecting animals from abuse shouldn't be greater than laws protecting children. Mary Ellen's case went to court, and the foster mother was convicted of assault and battery and given a one-year sentence.

Foster Care in the 1900s: Social Agencies and Foster Parents

In the early 1900s, society began to recognize the importance of child care. The federal government started to establish laws and regulations to protect children. In 1912, the first federal child welfare law was passed. This required states to have a system for the licensing of foster homes. The Children's Bureau was also created in 1912. The federal agency works to prevent child abuse and improve foster care and adoption.

Foster parents began to be seen as an integral part of a team effort to provide for dependent children as states started to formalize the process and enact regulations meant to protect children. Social agencies began to pay and supervise foster parents. The government began state inspections of foster homes. Records were kept to increase accountability, and children's needs were considered when placements were made. In addition, services were provided to birth families to enable foster children to reunify or return home.

The child welfare system continued to develop throughout the 20th century. By the 1970s, the number of children in U.S. foster care exceeded 500,000. However, the system was far from perfect. Many children remained in care for years without any permanency planning.

The Social Security Act of 1935 provided funding for child welfare services. In 1980, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act was passed. This act aimed to ensure children in foster care had a home placement. The act provided federal funding for services that would help reunify children with their birth parents or place them in adoptive homes.

The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act focused on finding permanent homes for children in foster care. This act required states to begin permanency planning for children within 12 months of being placed in foster care. The act also provided funding for support services for adoptive parents and foster caregivers.

Foster Care in the Modern United States

Today, children in foster care can be placed in several different types of foster homes. One type of home is a single foster family of one or more parents who care for up to six foster children in their home with their own biological or adopted children. Another type of foster care is the group home. Historically, group foster homes have been rife with abuse of children. They're now generally better regulated and monitored than in the past.

The third modern foster home type is called kinship care. Kinship care is when foster children are placed in the home of a relative or person who knew the child before they were removed from the home. The kinship foster care provider receives the emotional and financial support a foster parent would get from a foster care agency but already has an established relationship with the child.

The Future of Foster Care in America

While the foster care system has made significant strides over the years, there are still challenges that need to be addressed. Children with disabilities, mental health issues, and other special needs may require additional support services. Reunification with birth parents may not always be possible. In some cases, foster youth age out of the system without a permanent family, which can lead to struggles with independent living.

Advocacy groups such as CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and social workers play an essential role in the child welfare system. They work to ensure children are placed in safe and stable homes. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services oversees the foster care system and provides funding for support services for children and families.

The history of foster care in the United States has been shaped by the desire to ensure child safety and well-being. While the system has faced many challenges over the years, it has also made significant progress. Support services, background checks, and casework are some of the measures taken to ensure that child protection is a top priority.

Ask an Attorney About Your Foster Care Concerns

Understanding foster care's background and history provides important context. The process has improved over time. But important distinctions in state laws remain. If you are interested in participating in a foster care program, you should consider speaking to a professional. An experienced family law attorney can help you with foster care placements.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Fostering a child can involve many people and support services
  • An attorney can help you navigate the process and systems
  • You need legal help for any issue that could affect the foster placement

You can hire an attorney at different points in the fostering process. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

Find a local attorney