Foster Care

The Evolution of Foster Care in the United States

Foster care has had a long journey, from the early beginnings in the 1800s to modern times. Learn more about the rich history of foster care!

Foster care helps children in need every single day — over 390,000 children at the moment. 

For many of us, we know what foster care looks like today. Foster care groups help children in need get placed with a caring foster family who can help them thrive.

However, foster care has existed for many years. 

Let’s look at foster care history from the beginning to modern times. 

Early Beginnings

The idea of foster care can be traced back to the 1500s — in those days, a very poor form of foster care known as “indentured service” existed. However, it wasn’t always a good experience. People often took advantage of the children for labor. The first real recorded foster child in the US was Benjamin Eaton — a seven-year-old boy. 

The 19th Century: A Turning Point

It wasn’t until 1853 that foster care had its next step forward. Charles Loring Brace, a prominent social reformer, founded the Children Aid Society: a group that wanted to improve the lives of children in need. 

One year later, in 1854, the group began the “Orphan Train Movement”. It addressed the growing problem of abandoned children in urban areas, particularly in New York City. These children often lived in bad conditions, couldn’t get access to education, and were at risk of falling into lives of poverty and crime.

The movement took children from full orphanages and from the streets of New York City and took them to rural areas in the Midwest and beyond. These children were placed with families who were willing to take them in, and they worked in exchange for food, shelter, and an education.

Between 1854 and 1929, the Orphan Train moved over 200,000 children into new homes. 

The movement wasn’t without problems, though. Many people didn’t like that it would sometimes place a child in a home where the owners may take advantage of the child for labor. Others said that it split up families and communities. 

As more children’s aid groups opened up, we began to see some of the problems they faced, including:

However, these groups, and Charles Loring Brace himself, were the true start of foster care as we know it. 

20th Century: A Shift in Focus 

By the early 1900s, there was a change in the way we looked at child labor. The well-being of children became the main focus, and the laws began to change from protecting guardians to the care of the children. 

Advocates for children in need spoke up to make change — for example, ensuring that children couldn't work in certain jobs until they were older, such as mines or factories.

The Children's Bureau, formed in 1912, played a role in the importance of home life for children in the early 1900s and beyond. This group was created to focus on child welfare issues, including fighting for children's well-being and making sure that they grow up in safe places.

For example, the group fought for the belief that children should be raised by their own families whenever possible. Their focus was to give the support that parents needed to raise their children. However, they also provided support for foster care — especially in cases of neglect. 

All of this led to 1935 and the passing of the “Social Security Act” — in other words, the federal government took over responsibility for foster care. Together with state governments, they would give help to foster care in many ways, with one of the biggest being federal funding to foster care groups and families. 

Modern Foster Care 

In 1977, the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) model was put in place. In simple terms, this was a group of volunteers who provided the right information about foster children and their needs to the court. This makes sure that judges have all the information they need to make the right decisions. 

The model was created by Judge David Soukup in Seattle, Washington. Soukup was worried about the lack of attention given to foster care and wanted to make sure children in care had their needs understood by the court. Their only concern is the well-being of the children in care!

Fast forward to 1998, and former President Ronald Reagan made the month of May “National Foster Care Month”. Its goal is not only to raise awareness for children in need but also to celebrate the efforts of current foster parents — without them, we wouldn’t be able to care for children in need. 

The last major step in the history of foster care was the “Extended Foster Care” (EFC) program in California. It goes beyond providing care to children in need — it provides support to children in care as they become adults. 

The main benefit of the program is the services being extended beyond the age of 18. Understanding that children in care may need extra time to gain skills, the program can help people up to 21 years old, and in some cases, up to 26 years old. 

The program has many benefits, including:

  • Better education results
  • Better housing stability
  • Better access to healthcare

It has also opened the eyes of other states in the US, too — many other states have brought in similar programs! 

Foster Care Has Come a Long Way

Although foster care isn’t perfect, we’ve made great progress over the years, with a lot of effort going into how we can improve. 

As a provider of foster care services, Sevita’s companies are proud to help children in need. 

Discover more about how Sevita’s companies help children thrive in a loving and caring home today. 

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