Every year, thousands of children in the United States enter the juvenile dependency system, also known as foster care, after experiencing abuse, abandonment or neglect. The name “juvenile dependency” stems from the fact that youth in foster care are considered “dependents” of the court. During their time in foster care, the goal of the court and the professionals on a child’s case is to ensure their safety, provide for their needs, and determine the best plan for stability.
Today, foster care is a complex system involving an interconnected web of professionals, caregivers, and volunteers whose primary focus is the welfare of the children. However, “foster care” didn’t always carry the same meaning.
As the meaning of fostering a child has evolved over time, so too has the legislation and culture surrounding child welfare in the United States. This National Foster Care Month, we would like to take a walk through history to discover what milestones made an impact on the foster care system we know today.
1500s – English Poor Laws
In England, “English Poor Laws” allowed those in poverty, without a home, or orphaned youth to be placed in indentured service until adulthood. This lamentable practice was carried to the Colonies, where “foster homes” were considered homes of families or adults that took in these indentured children.1
1636 – The Colonies sees its first “foster child”
Seven-year-old Benjamin Eaton became the nation’s first recorded foster child a mere thirty years after the founding of Jamestown Colony.2
1853 – Foundations of modern-day foster care are established
Charles Loring Brace, a minister, founded a program called Children’s Aid New York after noticing an influx of children living neglected and homeless in the streets of New York City. The program provided housing, food, fresh air programs, and schooling to support thousands of orphaned children. Additionally, Children’s Aid pioneered the Orphan Train Movement, a controversial program which placed orphaned children from overcrowded cities with families located in the Midwest.3
Mid-to late-1800s – Involvement of local agencies and state governments
The initiatives established by Children’s Aid New York led to the involvement of local agencies and state governments in foster home placements. In the mid-19th century, Massachusetts began offering to pay families who took in children that were too young to work. In the late 19th century, Pennsylvania made it a misdemeanor for families to care for two or more unrelated children without a license.1 & 2
Early 1900s – Laws shift from protecting guardians to protecting children
In the early 20th century, local agencies began paying and monitoring foster parents, keeping records, and considering the needs of children when placements were made. Reunification services became available, and foster parents began to establish themselves as part of a “foster care” network rather than individual and separate entities.2
1919 – Focus on home life and stability for children
The Children’s Bureau, as part of the United States Department of Labor, published Minimum Standards of Child Welfare, highlighting the importance of keeping a child in their own home whenever possible, and if removal from a home was necessary, offering an environment of “home life” through foster placements.4
1935 – The federal government takes over foster care
With the passing of the Social Security Act in 1935, the United States federal government approved the first federal grants for child welfare services given that state inspections of foster homes take place prior.7
1939-1945 – Foster care as a refuge
During World War II, thousands of youth fleeing unsafe areas in England were temporarily placed in foster homes around the United States.5
1977 – Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) model introduced
In the Seventies, Judge David Soukup developed the first model of a court appointed volunteer in Seattle, Washington. This volunteer’s role was to offer more detailed information about a foster youth’s needs to the court. The volunteer, unlike many other professionals on a case, would stay with that child throughout their many placement changes for as long as they were in foster care, offering not only detailed court reports, but advocacy and consistency.6 This model quickly spread across the United States, and in 1980, San Diego County launched its CASA program when Voices for Children was co-founded by Kathryn Ashworth, Esq. and Elizabeth Bacon.
1988 – Installment of May as National Foster Care Month
President Reagan announced a presidential proclamation that National Foster Care Month would be established in May.5
2012 – Introduction of California’s Extended Foster Care (EFC) Program
California’s Assembly Bill (AB) 12 was signed into law in 2010 and went into effect in 2012. The bill proposed allowing certain youth to continue remaining in foster care up to the age of 21 given that they meet one of five participation criteria. These criteria include: having a high school diploma or GED, being enrolled in higher education, participating in an employment program, being employed at least 80 hours a month, or having a medical condition that prevents the former requirements.8
Support local foster youth today
Today, the foster care system is an ever-evolving response to child abuse and neglect in this country. With more than 400,000 youth spending time in foster care across the United States each year, it can be difficult to ensure that the needs of each and every foster child are being met. Thankfully, the CASA model introduced in 1977 continues to grow and make a difference for youth. CASA volunteers are caring individuals who dedicate their time and energy to providing life-changing advocacy to foster children by working with professionals on a case, spending time with the children, offering resources to meet their needs, and writing detailed court reports to help judges make informed decisions for the children’s futures.
To impact the life of a foster child as a CASA, sign up for an online volunteer Information Session today.
(1) Findlaw, Foster Care: Background and History
(2) National Foster Parent Association, History of Foster Care in the United States
(3) Children’s Aid, A History of Innovation
(4) Children’s Bureau, Standards of Child Welfare
(5) Children’s Bureau, Foster Care Month History
(6) CASA Guardian ad Litem (CASa/ GAL), The History of CASA/GAL Movement
(7) Adoption.org, When Did Foster Care Start?
(8) California Department of Social Services