Essay Writing Samples

The History of the Foster Care System in the United States

The foster care system exists in order to improve the lives of children in need who do not have parents. The purpose of the present sample essay provided by Ultius is to discuss the history of the foster care system within the United States.

Foster Care in the United States

The essay will have three main parts.

  1. The first part will discuss the origins and development of the foster care system over time.
  2. The second part will describe the current state of the system within the United States, including relevant statistics.
  3. Finally, the third part will consider future directions for the system, including ways in which the system can and must improve over coming times.

Origins and development of the foster care system

Conceptually, it would seem that the principle of foster care within Western civilization can be traced all the way back to certain passages in the Old Testament. But as the National Foster Parent Association has written:

“It was English Poor Law, however, that lead to development and eventual regulation of family foster care in the United States. In 1562, these laws allowed the placement of children into indentured service until they came of age. This practice was imported to the United States and was the beginning of placing children into homes” (paragraph 2).

The concept of indentured servitude may seem morally problematic from a modern perspective. Within the context of the times, however, this actually constituted a major improvement over the previous placement of orphaned or abandoned children in almshouses. At least within the system of indentured servitude, the children were in fact placed with actual families, and they also had the opportunity to learn skills that would enable them to function independently within society when they came of age.

The next major development in the American foster care system emerged in 1853 and was spearheaded by a man named Charles Loring Brace. The National Foster Parents Association has indicated that as a

“minister and director of the New York Children’s Aid Society, Brace was concerned about the large number of immigrant children sleeping in the streets of New York. He devised a plan to provide them homes by advertising in the South and West for families willing to provide free homes for these children” (paragraph 4).

According to the Children’s Aid Society, these children were taken by train from New York to their selected destinations; and between the years of 1853 and 1929, more than 150,000 children were transported to foster homes in this way (paragraph 5). This was called the Orphan Train Movement, and it was the first major initiative of this kind within the United States. It constituted a turning point for the foster care system as a whole.

These efforts by Brace eventually led to other agencies following the lead of the New York Children’s Aid Society; and these actions, taken together, laid the foundations for the foster care system within the United States as it is known today. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota were among the first states that began to take meaningful efforts in this regard.

Protocols of regulations, including regulations that allowed the federal government to inspect foster family homes, were eventually introduced over time. The ethos of indentured servitude inherited from English Poor Law was still in place when Brace was making his pioneering efforts, Over time, though, this ethos began to get phased out, as people became increasingly aware of the morally problematic nature of such a relationship and the ways in which such a relationship exposed foster children to exploitation and abuse.

This moral development in the system, though, likely required the evolution of the infrastructure of the system in the first place: there first of all needed to be parents available and willing to accept foster children.

Present state of the system

The present foster care system within the United States has, truth be told, taken on the character of a complex bureaucratic apparatus. As Bass, Shields, and Behrman have written:

“When entering foster care, or the ‘child welfare system,’ a child does not enter a single system, but rather multiple systems that intersect and interact to create a safety net for children who cannot remain with their birth parents;” and the organizations involved in this macro-system include “state and local child welfare agencies, courts, private service providers, and public agencies that administer other government programs” (7).

Within the court system, an attorney known as a court appointed special advocate (or CASA) is designated to ensure that the foster child’s voice is heard when this is relevant to decision making processes. The different organizations involved in these processes attempt to coordinate their efforts as effectively as possible in order to pursue the best interests of the child.

A couple of the most relevant recent reforms that have affected the American foster care system are Child and Family Service Reviews of 1994 and the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997. The former mandated that individual states be

“assessed on a broad range of systemic, family, and child outcome measures to determine how well they are meeting the goals of promoting safety, permanency, and well-being for children in foster care;”

and the AFSA introduced a host of reforms into the foster care system, including shortening decision making timelines and encouraging the practice of adoption (Bass et al. 8-9).

In general, these efforts were meant to improve the general quality of the American foster care system and also to address the issues of inefficiency and overcrowding within the system that were increasingly getting in the way of the system’s capacities to truly do what was in the best interests of all children within the system.

According to Child Welfare Information Gateway,

“on September 30, 2013, there were an estimated 402,378 children in foster care,”

with 28 percent of these children living with relatives and 47 percent of them living with nonrelatives (2).

Demographically, a disproportionate number of children in the were of African American ethnic descent: 24 percent of all foster children were Black, compared 20 percent of children being Hispanic and 45 percent being White (11). Relative to the share of the overall national population claimed by the various racial/ethnic groups, this means that their are in fact demographic disparities within the current American foster care system.

This is part of a broader sociological pattern: for example, it is well-known that the Black population also suffers from disparities with respect to healthcare (see Richardson and Norris). More generally, it is clear that demographic trends within the current foster care system are closely related to problems experienced by various demographic groups at the sociological level. When a given group faces certain problems, that group could be expected to become less capable of caring for its children.

According to McCutcheon’s study, for example, most social workers who participated in the study reported the feeling that most children entered the foster care system as a result of abuse and/or neglect, and that drug abuse by parents was a major reason why it was not possible for those parents to care for their children in an effective way.

Now, if the assumption were made that neglect and drug abuse likely have some correlation with impoverishment, then the hypothesis would follow that the demographic groups who are most impoverished will also be the ones whose children are most significantly represented within the foster care children. The demographic data reported by Child Welfare Information Gateway clearly indicates that this is in fact the case. The state of the current foster care system within the United States is thus closely connected to the state of American society more generally.

Future directions and recommendations

Although the American foster care system has come a long way, there still exists a dominant critical perspective that the system is by and large failing the children.

Soronen, for example, has delineated several rather devastating statistics. These include the facts that..

  • 20 percent of foster children will be homeless once they “age out” of the system when they turn 18=
  • that only 50 percent of them will find gainful employment by the age of 24
  • that less than 3 percent of them will earn a college degree; that over 70 percent of the girls will be pregnant by the age of 21
  • and that 25 percent of them will experience post-traumatic stress disorder

These figures can hardly be called impressive, and they lend a great deal of credence to the perspective that radical changes still need to be made to the American foster care system if it is to truly serve the long-term needs of the children under its protection.

Bass et al. have put forth several recommendations regarding what can be done in order to improve the well-being of children within the foster care system.

These include:

  • conducting regular health assessments of children,
  • establishing rigorous measures of well-being,
  • establishing specialized services that address the needs of the children in a specifically age-appropriate way,
  • improving cultural competency for the delivery of care to children from minority backgrounds,
  • establishing services to support both birth families and foster families, enhancing the ethos of permanency (i.e. the objective of ensuring the child has a permanent home after coming of age),
  • and increasing professional accountability across the system as a whole.

Several other recommendations are also made; and taken together, they would seem to call for a wholesale reform of the American foster care system has come to function, such that the system will adopt a much more child-centered and much less traditionally bureaucratic mode of functioning and achieving objectives.

The foster care system within the United States thus clearly has a long way to go, when considered from the ideal perspective of ensuring that all children within the system are able to grow into happy and productive adults, but they often go a less productive route. However, considered in terms of its broader history as has been discussed above, it must also be acknowledged that the system has in fact come a very long way, and that even the very fact that people are able to formulate the kind of ideals they are formulating now is a testament to that.

For example, before the importation of the English Poor Law system a few hundred years ago, there was no formal foster care system at all within the United States; and even during the major initiatives launched by Brace in the mid-1800s, it was still accepted as a matter of course that a foster child would probably be placed into a situation of indentured servitude.

The ideal today, however, is to provide foster children with actual families who can fulfill the psychological, social, and emotional functions that the children’s natural families were not able to fulfill. Historically considered, this is an almost unprecedented ideal; and the fact that the system is having difficulties with meeting it is perhaps less important than the fact that people today are in fact committed to meeting it and working to make that happen.


In summary, the present essay has discussed the history of the foster care system within the United States. It began by discussing the origins and development of the system, proceeded to describe the current state of the system, and finally considered the future of the system and recommendations for that future. An important conclusion that has been reached here is that although the American foster care system is by no means perfect and surely has a long way to go in order to produce truly good outcomes for all children, the system has also clearly come a long way since its humble beginnings several centuries ago. While criticism is clearly necessary, it is also perhaps important to reflect at least a little on how much has already been accomplished.

Works Cited

Bass, Sandra, Margie K. Shields, and Richard E. Behrman. “Children, Families, and Foster Care: Analysis and Recommendations.” Children, Families, and Foster Care 14.1 (2004). Web. 23 Jul. 2015. .

Child Welfare Information Gateway. “Foster Care Statistics 2013.” Apr. 2015. Web. 23 Jul. 2015. .

Children’s Aid Society. “History.” n.d. Web. 23 Jul. 2015. .

McCutcheon, James. “Historical Analysis and Contemporary Assessment of Foster Care in

Texas: Perceptions of Social Workers in a Private, Non-Profit Foster Care Agency.” Master’s Thesis for Texas State University, San Marcos. 2010. Web. 23 Jul. 2015. .

National Foster Parents Association. “History of Foster Care in the United States.” 2015. Web. 23 Jul. 2015. .

Richardson, L. D., and M. Norris. “Access to Health and Health Care: How Race and Ethnicity Matter.” Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine 77 (2010): 166-177. Print.

Soronen, Rita. “We Are Abandoning Children in Foster Care.” CNN. 17 Apr. 2014. Web. 23 Jul. 2015. .

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