Foster care refers to the informal and formal custodial care of children outside of their own biological family home when their parents are unable, unwilling, or prohibited from caring for them. Historically, foster care provided homes to poor and parentless children and served to maintain order in a changing society. The origins of contemporary American foster care date back to the colonial-era practice of indentureship or "binding out." Following English tradition, families frequently placed their child with a master who taught the child a trade and provided basic sustenance in exchange for the child's labor. Poor children were often involuntarily bound out through public auction when a family was unable to provide for their care; exploitation was quite common in these circumstances. Indentureship declined in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as reformers promoted institutional living and believed that its structured and contained life of the institution offered the solution to poverty and its accompanying social ills, including the plight of dependent and orphaned children.
The practice of foster care grew more formalized with the development of an anti-cruelty movement and the establishment of SOCIETIES FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO CHILDREN (SPCC) in the late nineteenth century. These agencies provided a feeder most commonly to institutions and to a lesser degree to family-based foster care. As a result the number of ORPHANAGES tripled between 1865 and 1890. Voluntary SPCC agents were often granted police power and removed children from their biological homes due to physical abuse or, more commonly, poverty-related neglect. Yet some nineteenth-century reformers questioned institutional practices. Most famously, CHARLES LORING BRACE established the NEW YORK CHILDREN'S AID SOCIETY that sent urban orphaned, half-orphaned, and other poor children to reside with farm families. Espousing romanticized notions of countryside living and a belief that it was best to remove neglected and abused children from their families of origin, Brace's work constituted a response to the increased immigration, crime, and disease that characterized urban society. Brace, however, was not without his critics, particularly those who believed that the farm families exploited the children's labor and Catholic reformers who accused Brace of placing Catholic children in Protestant homes.
The Progressive Era witnessed a deepening concern with the plight of poor and orphaned children. The period's CHILD-SAVING movement portrayed children as vulnerable beings in need of family protection, nurture, and affection and argued that a child was best cared for by its own biological parents. The child savers focused on a variety of child welfare initiatives, such as mothers' pensions, day nurseries, and public health reforms that they hoped would reduce the need for out-of-home care. Yet reformers such as Holmer Folks also recognized the continued need for custodial care and strongly advocated family-based foster care, which they viewed as far superior to institutional arrangements. Even Progressive-era child-caring institutions were refurbished to provide more of a family-like setting through "cottage" style housing although the majority of dependent children continued to be cared for in institutional settings in this period. These voluntary and largely sectarian foster care agencies often engaged in discriminatory practices. Historians of both the anti-cruelty and child-saving movements highlight the class and ethnic biases of middle-class Anglo Saxon reformers who intervened in the family life of poor immigrant families and often equated foreign cultural practices and poverty-ridden conditions with neglect. Moreover, the child welfare agencies typically denied AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHILDREN foster care services or provided only a small number of homes on a segregated basis. As a result, early-twentieth-century African-American reformers established their own organizations, although these agencies often suffered from a lack of adequate funding. Members of the African-American community also fostered children on an informal basis, taking in children of friends, neighbors and relatives when assistance was needed. Informal fostering practices were also common in many immigrant communities.
Concern with child welfare and foster care declined in the conservative 1920s and even the welfare state architects of the New Deal era paid little attention to foster care as they believed that larger anti-poverty efforts would reduce and ultimately eliminate the out-of-home placement of children. But the New Deal reformers were far from correct in their assessment. The years following World War II actually saw the development of the contemporary child welfare bureaucracy. The federal government provided an increasing amount of funds for the establishment and expansion of public child welfare agencies that, unlike the voluntary sectarian agencies, had to serve all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, or faith. The postwar period also witnessed the "rediscovery" of CHILD ABUSE. Mid-century radiologists uncovered the phenomenon of multiple, repeat fractures in children resulting from parental abuse and in 1962 the Journal of the American Medical Association published a now famous paper entitled "The Battered Child Syndrome" by physician C. Henry Kempe and his associates. The article drew massive amounts of public attention and captured the imagination of a reform-minded America. Between 1963 and 1967 every state passed legislation mandating professionals to report suspected instances of child abuse and in 1972 Congress enacted the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act that provided funds for a national center on child abuse and neglect. Not surprisingly, this legislation resulted in a huge increase in child abuse reports and ultimately a dramatic rise in the foster care population.
Disturbed by the growth in foster care, child welfare advocates of the 1970s uncovered the phenomenon of "foster care drift" in which children experienced multiple foster home placements. This phenomenon flew in the face of popular social scientific wisdom that stressed the importance of attachment and permanency for children's positive developmental outcomes. In response to this mounting critique, Congress passed the Child Welfare Act of 1980. The act attempted to reduce the foster care population by emphasizing family preservation and reunification programs and required state agencies to make "reasonable efforts" before removing a child from its home. It also institutionalized the previously informal practice of "kinship care" in which relatives serve as foster parents. While the act contributed to a temporary decline in the foster care population, from 1987 to 1992 the number of children in foster care grew from 280,000 to 460,000. While some suggest that the act suffered from inadequate funding, others partially attribute the rise in foster care to the development of an epidemic of drug use that ravaged low-income, inner-city America during the 1980s. At the same time, family preservation efforts came under fire as some research showed that intensive social work programs did little to prevent child removal and a series of highly publicized child abuse cases described how children were allowed to remain or return to the homes of their biological parents where they ultimately met their deaths. Other critics were especially concerned about the growing overrepresentation of African-American children in the foster care population, which some attributed to institutionalized racism within the child welfare system.
The backlash against family preservation along with ongoing concern regarding the number of children in foster care culminated in the passage of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997. ASFA sought to reduce the foster care population and promotes permanency for children by stressing ADOPTION over family preservation efforts, although some money was set aside for family preservation. The act sped up the time line toward termination of parental rights, allowed for "concurrent planning" in which child welfare workers simultaneously prepare for family reunification and adoption, and provided states with financial incentives for adoption. Adoption advocates argue that with increased assistance safe and loving adoptive homes can increasingly be found for foster children who were previously considered "hard to place"–such as those experiencing physical or psychiatric disabilities or children of color who historically have experienced low adoption rates.
Critics of the contemporary child welfare system argue that it is not foster care in and of itself that produces poor outcomes for children but rather a dysfunctional, underfunded child welfare bureaucracy run by poorly trained and over-whelmed staff. The Child Welfare League of America observed that by 2002 caseworkers in some states had up to 55 children on their caseloads, while the League recommended a caseload of no more than 15 children. Others maintain that the inadequacy of the child welfare system stems from its inability to address the primary issue contributing to child neglect, abuse, and removal: poverty. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of children in foster care are born into poverty and some studies show that the primary predictor of child removal is not the severity of abuse but the level of the family's income. Critics noted that in the early twenty-first century the United States had the highest rate of child poverty of any industrialized Western nation and argued the income and social supports more typical of Western European nations, such as family allowances, government-supported day care, family leave policies, more generous benefits for single mothers and their children, would reduce the number of American children in foster care.
Ashby, LeRoy. 1997. Endangered Children: Dependency, Neglect, and Abuse in American History. New York: Twayne.
Billingsley, Andrew and Jeanne Giovannoni. 1972. Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Duncan, Lindsey. 1994. The Welfare of Children. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gordon, Linda 1988. Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston, 1880–1960. New York: Viking.
Mason, Mary Ann. 1994. From Father's Property to Children's Rights: The History of Child Custody in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.
Nelson, Barbara. 1984. Making an Issue of Child Abuse: Political Agenda Setting for Social Problems. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Platt, Anthony. 1969. The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Roberts, Dorothy. 2002. Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. New York: BasicBooks.
Tiffin, Susan 1982. In Whose Best Interest? Child Welfare Reform in the Progressive Era. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.