Background and History of Foster Care

Background and History of Foster Care

Foster care has been a part of society as long as children have required a safe home outside of that of their biological family. However, the practice of foster care has evolved over time from something that under modern standards would appear cruel and largely unregulated to the highly organized and regulated system of foster care in place today.

Early foster care

Traditionally children, who were unable to live with their parent (because they were orphaned or had left home due to abuse or neglect) were placed in almshouses or poorhouses like the horrid institutions described by Charles Dickens in his novels chronicling the harsh life of poor children in Victorian England.

The use of almshouses was eventually replaced with the practice of placing orphaned or abused and neglected children into indentured servitude, whereby a child would learn a trade with a host family and work as a servant in exchange for room and board. For the families who took on these children, the arrangement was beneficial particularly if work had to be done around the household, in family businesses, and on farms. However, in some cases, the welfare of children in these arrangements came at the expense of the cheap labor they provided. However, most accounts indicate that indentured children taken on were treated as part of the family.

Related: Foster Parent Requirements


The rise of standardized foster care

In the mid-19th-century, foster care in America became more formalized with the involvement of social welfare agencies who advocated for orphaned, abused or neglected children. One such agency, the Children’s Aid Society thousands of immigrant children sleeping on the streets of New York City.

To provide a safe home for these children, the organization began to coordinate what was known as the orphan train movement in which over 150,000 orphaned children were relocated by train to farms across the country. Under these arrangements, many children thrived in their new homes, whereas others were treated harshly being used as a source for cheap labor.

Related: Foster Parent Requirements


By the early 20th century, the problem of how best to provide stable homes for orphaned or abused and neglected children began to be confronted by social agencies who laid the foundation for the modern child welfare and foster care system. In the early 20th century social agencies with the assistance of state and local governments, began to pay and also regulate foster parents though licensing, home inspection and record keeping requirements. These efforts provided the foundation for the current system which involves a combination of child welfare agencies and government agencies working to coordinate and regulate foster care.   

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