Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Foster Care’s Beginnings in the United States
As ancient as the Talmud and Old Testament, foster care has existed globally for around 3,000 years. Under these sacred texts, it was noted that caring for dependent children was a duty under law. Ancient Christian church records similarly show that orphans were boarded with “worthy widows” who were then paid by collections from the congregation.
However, the foster care system in America began with much less ethical roots in 1562 as an extension of the British Poor Law, which permitted the placement of poor children into indentured service until they came of age. Indentured service allowed abuse and exploitation, however it was viewed as a step above the almshouses that the children had previously survived in. Almshouses were buildings for the poor, which were oftentimes funded by the rich. In these houses, children did not learn a trade and were exposed to adults with ill-will in oftentimes horrendous surroundings.
The modern foster care movement in the United States was initiated by Minister Charles Loring Brace in 1853. As the director of the New York Children’s Aid Society, Brace was concerned about the growing population of homeless immigrant children. He gathered kids off of the streets and made an effort to look for families willing to provide free homes to them, mostly through advertisements. In most cases, children were utilized by these families as free labor and indentured service, which established the roots and foundation for America’s foster care system as it exists today.
By the early twentieth century, more social agencies became involved in the placement of children. The U.S. government began to supervise foster parents, started keeping records, and inspecting the homes of any potential foster parents. Indentured servitude was abolished, and the federal government helped to pass laws to fund the foster system in America.
How America’s Foster Care System Operates
The foster care system in America is complex, however Adoption.org wrote the following description which manages to capture the overall gist of the process: “A child enters the foster care system after a report is filed with Child Protective Services (CPS). CPS will investigate the claim and a social worker will decide if it is safe for the child to remain in the home with his or her biological parents or guardians, or if it would be in the best interest of the child to move him out of the home. Once the child is moved out of his home the social worker will see if kinship care is possible. If not, the child will enter the foster care system… During this time, the child’s birth parents or guardians work to complete the services that will allow the child to return home. Reunification is the goal, and more than half of the children in foster care return to their birth parents or guardians… If reunification is not possible, the child then becomes eligible for adoption.”
Where the System Falls Short
However, the foster care system has many nuances that are not encompassed in the description above. Factors like race, gender, sexual orientation, and age all play major roles in a child’s experience while in the system.
There is a disproportionate amount of parental surveillance against African-American families. Around 75% of all cases that were reported to child services were for neglect, disproportionately impacting African American families. “African-American kids in particular get reported more often because of a lot more surveillance in poor communities than in rich communities. A lot of these referrals come from law enforcement, schools, and hospitals,” said Tracey Feild, Director of the Child Welfare Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in an interview with Teen Vogue. According to the US Commission on Civil Rights, African American children also wait an average of 39.4 months to get adopted, compared to the 23.5 months of their white counterparts.
Gender and Sexuality
Young girls in the system are also at a much higher risk than their male counterparts to experience sexual abuse. Children without their parents are already 10 times more likely to experience sexual abuse than kids living with biological parents; being a girl increases the likelihood of this occuring. Similarily, LGBTQ+ youth are more vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. In an exposé with FosterClub, Kristopher, an LGBTQ+ foster child, shared his story. After being outed and put in the system, he wrote that he was “forced to grow up in congregate care placements such as group homes and residential treatment centers (RTCs) oftentimes moving every 5 or 6 months.” He was told that foster families “didn’t want a gay kid in their home.” At the age of 14, he was routinely molested by one of his caregivers, and by 16, he had experienced emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. He aged out of the system at 18 without any life skills and was forced to work the streets.
Age is one of the largest factors and biggest misconceptions of the foster system. Children’s Rights wrote, “Despite the common perception that the majority of children in foster care are very young, the average age of kids entering care is 8.” These kids stay in the system for an average of two years. However, many are not among those who make it into foster homes. In 2018, more than 17,000 kids aged out of foster care. These children are more likely to experience homelessness, unemployment and incarceration as adults.
What Other Countries are Doing
Other countries around the globe are experiencing similar problems to those that exist in America. For one example, Canada has been experiencing accountability problems, and has more children than the system can provide quality out-of-home care for. This leads to children being housed in hotels, an often costly process.
Australia differs from both the U.S. and Canada, in that they use, “a process that explores how the family in question can benefit from direct family support services rather than immediately taking the child out of the home,” according to the Texas Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing. This means that their system focuses on helping parents and teaching them how to cope with their parental responsibilities.
While children in the U.S. and Canada are placed in the care of foster parents, other countries such as India aren’t waiting for the system to mobilize and address the issue. Instead cities in India such as New Delhi have established unique foster homes known as SaiKripa Homes. These homes promote the older foster daughters and sons to care for the younger ones. All the while, the foster youth are advised to prioritize their education. Girls and boys are separated into different houses but are bound by the tradition of Rakhi. Rakhi is otherwise known as the “bond of protection.” In this ancient tradition, a girl ties a thread of colors to a boy’s wrist, claiming him as her “brother.” In turn he promises to protect and care for her if the need arises. Dr. Kalyani Gopal, author and clinical psychologist, said that Sai Kripa Homes are truly a “brilliant and effective family model” where young women and men enter their careers ready to change restricting perspectives on women in the workplace and follow local cultural traditions.
Dr. John DeGarmo, an international expert on foster care and a foster parent of 15 years, housing over 50 kids, wrote the following after attending a global conference on foster systems around the world: “In India, where the population is 1.3 billion people, the foster care system is one that is practically unknown. In the past, the child protection system in India, as well as other nations across Europe and around the world, relied solely on institutions; a system that many global foster care leaders find as both archaic and extremely harmful to the child. Children entered the system and lived in big institutions until they turned 18 with little or no transition or life trajectory.”
Similarly, Jane Snaith, with Family For Each Child said, “In Estonia the biggest challenge in foster care and adoption is missing support systems.” Greece seemed to be experiencing many of the same problems as India, with Mary Theodoropoulou of the Roots Research Center saying that, “Greece does not have yet a practical and fully detailed legislation on foster care. Children in need instead enter institutions, where they suffer in several ways. If they are lucky enough, they might end up in a foster family. Our hope is to promote foster care as a good practice for children in need. Along with this, we are working to educate and train foster parents.”
Nations everywhere are experiencing difficulties with their foster care systems. Many countries are in the infancy stage and are trying to build the needed infrastructure. Others are flourishing, and have had time to figure out what they want their unique systems to look like.
Teen Vogue wrote, “According to advocates, the best way to solve America’s foster care crisis is to fund preventative measures to keep kids out of state care in the first place. States also need to invest in developing greater numbers of staff and foster parents from a wider set of racial backgrounds and geographic locations.”
Through Teen Lenses: What did you know about the US foster care system, what surprised you, and what do you want to see change?
“I kind of knew a bit about the foster system, because my sister is a social worker. I was shocked about how other countries are doing things differently than us. I thought it would be similar [to the U.S. foster care system]. That was really interesting to me. I also kind of knew about age and gender discrimination, becuase I have heard peoples stories before on social media. I want to see kids of color have a fair opportunity. I want to see females be safe. I want people with different sexualities to have an equal chance. With age, I understand where people might be coming from; you want to raise the kid. But I feel like they need to give them a chance too. I also think that Australia’s method of helping the family, not just abandoning them, rather seeing if they could improve that way is really nice.” Sydney Couch, 15, Rising Sophomore, Tartan High, MN
“I actually was a bit aware [of the U.S. foster care system], but I didn’t know all the specific stats, such as the ‘children in foster care at 10x more at risk for sexual abuse compared go those with their biological parents.’ It was a bit shocking to me, especially as I already knew sexual abuse was a big problem in foster care. The sexual abuse stat, as well as the one about African American families [surprised her]. The percentage was very shocking to me, as 75% is insanely high. [The U.S. foster care system] should at least make more of an effort to educate the kids in foster care on basic life skills so they don’t go into adulthood completely blind. A lot of countries have good ideas, even though some might not be executing them in the most efficient way. There’s many things America has to improve on with adoption and foster care, so I don’t think it’d hurt to apply other countries’ tactics.” R.H, Rising Sophomore, MN