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Foster Care: A History

Posted By Charlene Sabini, CLP, ALP, Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The history of foster care in the United States had beginnings elsewhere and at other times. Very early documentation of children being cared for in foster homes can actually be found in the Old Testament and in the Talmud. Caring for dependent children was established as a duty under law. Early Christian church records also show children were boarded with "worthy widows" who were paid by collections from the congregation.1 The Quran also carried on this tradition of caring for orphans and widows. It was English Poor Law, however, that lead to development and eventual regulation of family foster care here in the United States. In 1562, these laws allowed the placement of poor children into indentured service until they came of age.2 Even though indentured service permitted exploitation, it was an improvement over almshouses where children didn't learn a trade and were exposed to unsanitary conditions and abusive caretakers.

At this time, children were placed into these homes because their parents or guardians were deceased rather than because they had been abused in their home, as child abuse was largely socially accepted and legal. Today, foster children are usually removed from a home due to abuse rather than because they were orphaned.3 In 1853, a minister named Charles Loring Brace, founded the Children's Aid Society in New York City, where he observed many immigrant children sleeping in the streets. Brace subsequently initiated the Orphan Train Movement where over 150,000 orphaned children in New York City were sent by train to farms across the country, primarily in the Midwest. Some children were treated with love and respect in these locations, while others were treated as slaves, even abused, and were often found to be working overly long hours. But as the emphasis was on providing abandoned children some semblance of family life, Brace's system became the foundation for today's foster care system.4

Slowly, the foster care program began to take shape. Our government became interested and involved itself in finding and providing homes to homeless children. Even licensing evolved to ensure the children were taken care of in a respectable, responsible, and caring way.

In the early 1900s, social and governmental agencies began to actually monitor and supervise foster parents. The practice of placing a child with just any willing family was over. These agencies took the child’s welfare and needs into account, and began a system of reports and records.5

Along the way, common sense suggested that emotional security was vital to children’s health and welfare, and science produced evidence to support this concept. Research on attachment and loss and studies of maternal deprivation in infancy influenced policies of placement and generated a more pro-adoption climate after 1940.

By 1950, statistics showed that children in family foster care outnumbered children in institutions for the first time. By 1960, there were more than twice as many in foster care. By the late 1970s, the foster child population exceeded 500,000, roughly where it stands today. Foster placements could be numerous and lengthy in practice, but in theory they were temporary because children maintained ties to their birth parents. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, as foster care became more common for more children, adoptions increasingly involved practices like matching, policies like confidentiality and sealed records, and placements of infants and toddlers rather than older children. Adoption aspired to the wholesale substitution of one family for another, unlike foster care.6

The present foster care system within the United States has taken on the nature of a complex bureaucratic apparatus. As Bass, Shields, and Behrman have written: "When entering foster care, or the 'child welfare system,' a child does not enter a single system, but rather multiple systems that intersect and interact to create a safety net for children who cannot remain with their birth parents;" and the organizations involved in this larger system include "state and local child welfare agencies, courts, private service providers, and public agencies that administer other government programs."7 Within the court system, an attorney or qualified person known as a court appointed special advocate (or CASA) is often designated to assure that the foster child's voice is heard when it is relevant to decision making.8

So, the history of child welfare in the United States can be characterized by a continuous shift between family preservation and child safety. “The 1970s saw efforts to reduce children’s time in foster care and expedite paths to permanency. The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) (P.L. 105-89) marked the first occasion where issues related to permanency were explicitly stated in legislation. . . . This law connected safety and permanency and demonstrated how each factor was necessary to achieve overall child well-being. While ASFA made clear that child safety was paramount, it also provided a new way of defining permanency for children and youth in foster care. The law specified that states had to improve the safety of children, promote adoption and other permanent homes for children who needed them, and support families. ASFA also required child protection agencies to provide more timely assessment and intervention services to children and families involved with child welfare. Additionally, ASFA paved the way for the legal sanction of concurrent planning (simultaneously identifying and working on a secondary goal such as guardianship with a relative) in states by requiring that agencies make reasonable efforts to find permanent families for children in foster care should reunification fail.” 9

In 2015, over 670,000 children spent time in U.S. foster care. On average, children remain in state care for nearly two years and six percent of children in foster care have remained there for five or more years. Despite the common perception that the majority of children in foster care are very young, the average age of kids in care is nearly 9.  In 2015, more than 20,000 young people aged out of foster care without permanent families. Research has shown that those who leave care without being linked to forever families have a higher likelihood than youth in the general population to experience homelessness, unemployment and incarceration as adults.10

Many social workers currently report that most children enter the foster care system as a result of abuse and/or neglect, and that drug abuse by parents is a major reason why it is not possible for some parents to care for their children in an effective way. For the past several decades, the foster care system has confronted substance abuse, AIDS, and other adult epidemics that trickle down to children.11 Those of us who work in juvenile law see drug and alcohol abuse as a dominant factor in removal of children from the homes in which the abuse is evident.



1.National Foster Parent Association, http://nfpaonline.org/page-1105741.
2. Ibid.
3. Foster Care: Background and History, http://family.findlaw.com/foster-care/foster-care-background-and-history.html.
4. Ibid.
5. TLC Child and Family Services, http://www.tlc4kids.org/blog/admin/09-05-2014/brief-history-foster-care, courtesy of Adoption.com, September 5, 2014.
6. Ellen Herman, The Adoption History Project, http://pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/topics/fostering.htm, February 24, 2012.
7. Bass, Sandra, Margie K. Shields, and Richard E. Behrman, "Children, Families, and Foster Care: Analysis and Recommendations." Children, Families, and Foster Care, 14.1 (2004). Web. 23 Jul. 2015, http://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=40&articleid=132§ionid=865.
8. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/the-history-of-the-foster-care-system-in-the-united-states.html, August 12, 2015.
9. https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/permanency/overview/history/
10. http://www.childrensrights.org/newsroom/fact-sheets/foster-care/
11. Herman, loc. cit.

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