In order to fully understand the foster care system
in the United States, it is necessary to look as far
back as the 18th century. At that time, local
government officials were given the task of
distributing relief to the poor and impoverished.
Often times, these officials were also granted
authority to indenture children from families in
poverty in lieu of monetary relief. Local officials
were to ensure that children were fed, housed,
clothed, and provided the necessary training of skills.
As society became more aware of the challenges of
underprivileged children, along with the growing
number of orphans, orphanages were established.
The early 19th century saw the establishment of what
grew to become the middle class. At the same time, the
conception grew that early childhood was an important
and separate part of human development. The character
of children was to be shaped by internalizing beliefs of
morality and behavior instead of breaking their wills, the
prevailing approach in colonial times. The outcome was a change in child rearing methods, as children began to live longer and
stay home for longer periods of time, instead of being forced to enter the workforce at early ages. The early 19th century was
also a time that children only from low income homes were indentured. Some states were required to furnish children a
minimum of 3 months of education per year. As states began to wane in indenturing children by the middle of the 19th century,
religious institutes, along with charitable organizations commenced to open their own orphanages.
The year 1853 witnessed a drastic change in regard to orphans and impoverished children. Charles Loring Brace, an austere
critic of orphanages and asylums, introduced the idea of placing these children in homes, rather than the traditional orphanage.
Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) later in that year, with the CAS’s vision that children should be placed in
homes rather than in institutions. It was Brace’s personal belief that children should live in rural areas, as he was against city
life. As a result, Brace endeavored to place children from urban slums into homes in the country. 1873 saw Mary Ellen Wilson
enter the scene. This young girl was found by a church worker when she was reported by her neighbors. Young Mary Ellen was
bruised, thin, and her skin was caked in dirt. When a New York judge became aware of the situation, Mary Ellen was removed
from her home, and placed into another, thus making her the first official foster child.
The later part of the 19th century saw an awareness of the importance of social issues, such as child abuse and parental
neglect. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) was created and became active in large eastern cities.
Soon, members of the SPCC were granted permission from the courts and began to remove children from abusive and
neglectful homes and placed them within other homes and orphan asylums. Families, such as those in Boston, Massachusetts
that took children into their homes, were being paid. With this change in policy in payment to families, child placement agencies
began to look more closely at the conditions in the placement homes where children were boarded. The term “foster care”
came into fashion, sometimes replacing the phrase “boarding out”.
In 1909, the White House Council of Children established a resolution that altered the earlier philosophy and policies in regard
to child welfare. This resolution was a new philosophy that held the belief that children needed to be reared in happy and stable
environments. Shortly later in 1915, California licensed, as well as regulated, agencies that found placement homes for
children. Five years later, the state began to pay these homes for this service.
The Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) act, which was Title IV of the Social Security Act, gave impoverished families access to
federal funds, enabling these families to keep their children at home, rather than have the children placed in orphan asylums.
Furthermore, the ADC with its additional federal funding, aided those establishments that housed children taken from their
homes. By 1950, more children were in foster homes than in orphanages and other institutions. The number of children in foster
homes continued to increase by 1960, as there were twice as many children placed in foster homes than institutions. This
number tripled by 1968, and by 1976, the number of children placed into foster homes exceeded 100,000 Accounting Office,
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Former Foster Kid
Dr. DeGarmo has written many articles on
the foster care system, including a doctoral
dissertation on the challenges that foster
children face while in rural school systems.
Dr. DeGarmo and his wife, who hails
from Australia, have four children of their
own, and have been foster parents for over
25 other children during the past 10 years.
Dr. DeGarmo is currently working on a
book for foster parents. He may be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|A Short History
of the Foster Care System
|From Mary Ellen to Kinship Care and everything in between.
By Dr. John DeGarmo
Foster Focus Contributor