Fostering and Foster Care


President Franklin Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act of 1935. Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, is the only woman visible in this photograph, but women were key advocates of “maternalist” social policies for children and families, including the program called Aid to Dependent Children, that eventually led to a dramatic expansion of foster placements.

Before 1945, “fostering” referred to numerous arrangements in which children were cared for in homes other than their own. The point of the term was to contrast institutional care with family placements. The case for foster care was articulated by nineteenth-century child-savers, including Charles Loring Brace, publicized by the orphan trains, and advanced by states that experimented with placing-out children rather than consigning them to orphanages.

In the early twentieth century, the cause was taken up by reformers like Henry Dwight Chapin, a New York pediatrician and founder of the Speedwell Society whose wife established one of the country’s first specialized adoption agencies, the Alice Chapin Nursery, in 1910. Henry Chapin circulated statistics showing that orphanages literally sickened and killed alarming numbers of children. His conviction that “a poor home is often better than a good institution” spread quickly among child welfare and public health professionals, but in 1910, there were well over 1000 orphanages in the United States, and their average size had grown considerably since the late nineteenth century. The campaign to make families the only acceptable places to raise children still had a long way to go.

On the front lines of this movement were “foster parents” who took other people’s children into their homes temporarily and permanently, informally and formally. Children who earned their keep by working, children whose board was paid by agencies, and children placed in “free homes” were all living in foster families. During the early decades of the twentieth century, legally adopted children were also called foster children. The terms of family care varied enormously. Terminology did not.

Long before “adoption” was commonly used, child-placers appreciated the differences between permanent kinship and temporary residence in someone else’s home. Most Progressive-era social workers aimed to keep children with their own families, even if they were illegitimate, out of respect for the importance of blood ties. But advocates also knew that some children could not or should not live with their birth parents. For these children, becoming a lifelong member of a new family was desirable. Common sense suggested that emotional security was key to children’s health and welfare, and developmental science produced additional evidence for this claim. Research on attachment and loss and studies of maternal deprivation in infancy influenced policies of early placement and ushered in 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. Foster care did not.

Two developments distanced adoption from foster care after the New Deal and World War II: the growth of public social welfare services and a new consciousness about the plight of African-American, mixed-race, older, native, developmentally delayed, physically disabled, and other hard-to-place children. Anti-poverty programs like Aid to Dependent Children (established by the Social Security Act of 1935 and later renamed Aid to Families With Dependent Children) offered financially struggling parents an alternative to placing their children in institutions or surrendering them forever. When the program expanded in the early 1960s, federal funding for foster care was added. The result was an explosion in out-of-home family placements. During the last half-century, foster care has come to designate this government-funded system. Foster care is now the main form of assistance provided to poor children in the United States who cannot remain in their own homes because of neglect or abuse.

Race as well as class marked the growing gap between foster care and adoption. During the postwar civil rights era, poor children of color, formerly denied many services, comprised more of the foster care caseload. Foster parents were somewhat better off economically than the children in their care, but they too were increasingly drawn from minority racial and ethnic communities. Foster parents were licensed and compensated by the state for the work they did, however meagerly, and had fewer legal protections than adoptive or birth parents. By definition, foster parents were not autonomous. They were expected to provide havens of safety and love for children at risk, but they were also responsible for keeping children in contact with relatives and agency workers. Adopters, on the other hand, were more affluent. They paid for the services they received, overwhelmingly preferred babies and young children whose racial identities matched their own, and were legally entitled to manage their families without supervision after court decrees were issued. Adoption spelled permanence, but the price of that permanence was the social obliteration of natal ties.

Children sometimes moved from foster care to adoption. Because termination of parental rights was a lengthy process, most of these were (and are) special needs adoptions. Foster children were invariably older and had complex loyalties to natal and foster kin. Their histories of separation and trauma were associated with behavioral and health problems. These characteristics made them undesirable to many would-be parents, and that made their adoptions difficult and expensive to arrange. After midcentury, agencies invested scarce time and money recruiting parents for hard-to-place children. By the 1960s, a few turned in frustration to controversial solutions like transracial adoptions.

Another approach, pioneered by New York state in 1965 and supported by the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, was to subsidize adoptions. Subsidies exposed the cruelty of market forces by offering economic incentives to adopt children for whom there was little or no demand. They challenged the assumption that permanent kinship required financial independence and acknowledged the high costs of raising children who needed ongoing medical and psychological help. If subsidies began to undercut the differences between foster care and adoption, a 1977 class action suit did just the opposite. In Smith v. OFFER, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that foster parents were not entitled to the same constitutional rights as other parents. Because states licensed, created, and paid them, foster families could not oppose children’s removal or expect to remain intact, as birth families could, no matter how long-lasting and deep the ties between foster parents and children.

For the past several decades, the foster care system has confronted substance abuse, AIDS, and other adult epidemics that trickle down to children. Even as more Americans seek healthy infants and toddlers through open adoptions, international adoptions, and new reproductive technologies, foster children drift from one placement to the next, and approximately 20,000 “age out” of the system each year. Their tragic plight has provoked soul-searching about “permanency planning,” hearings about barriers to adoption, and legislation, such as the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, that commits new resources to adoption. “Kinship care,” which seeks to transform grandmothers, aunts, and other birth relatives into certified foster parents or legal guardians, is one recent response to the failures of foster care. Such policies reflect the enduring rhetoric of family preservation while acknowledging the insurmountable odds against secure belonging for too many American children.


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Page Updated: 2-24-2012
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