Foster Care in America
In Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, released in 1838, Oliver is an orphan born in a workhouse and sold as an apprentice to an undertaker. He later escapes and joins a gang of young pickpockets, led by elderly ringleader Fagin. Dickens’ tale exposed the cruel treatment of many orphans in London in the mid-19th century. In John Irving’s 1985 book Cider House Rules, the children at a Maine orphanage are treated with love and respect, and one of the orphans eventually becomes director of the facility. The changing literary depictions of orphans during this span reflect changing societal attitudes about caring for children who cannot take care of themselves. Catherine Rymph, an associate professor of history at MU, has written a book that examines the modern history of foster care in the United States.
“There has always been a problem of caring for children who can’t take care of themselves, either because their parents die or become ill, or one parent dies and the other parent can’t work and care for the kids at the same time, or simply because the family is too poor,” Rymph says. “There have been numerous systems over time to deal with this, from indentured servitude to orphanages to workhouses. In the late 19th century, “orphan trains” took homeless street children out west and placed them with farm families. Sometimes families would pay a neighbor to board some of their children.”
A New System Takes Shape
Rymph’s new book, Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State traces the evolution of the modern American foster care system from its inception in the 1930s through the 1970s. Until the 1930s, Rymph says foster care was a complicated mix of public and private (mostly sectarian) systems. In the 1930s, the skeleton of the modern public system begins to take shape, and states began to create state departments of child welfare, spurred on by federal funds available through the new Social Security Act. Rymph says social workers in the mid-20th century were idealistic—hoping to turn foster care into a kind of therapeutic service available to all.
“Experts hoped foster care would become a service not just for poor families but available to any family going through a rough patch, and it would be individually tailored to the needs of the child,” Rymph says. “But it never really worked that way.”
She says child welfare reformers thought the new safety net programs of the New Deal would keep families out of poverty and thereby reduce and eventually eliminate the need for foster care. New Deal programs such as unemployment insurance and Aid to Dependent Children were designed to enable families to raise children at home. By the 1950s, Rymph says child welfare reformers were trying to solve the mystery of why foster care caseloads were continuing to climb. They theorized the rise in foster care was due to family pathologies—an alcoholic father, a mentally ill mother, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, or divorce, but Rymph says what they overlooked was that poverty was still the main determinant.
“I conclude that the foster care system we’ve ended up with is not at all what reformers imagined they were creating in the ‘30s,” she says. “It’s closely linked to poverty, racial minorities are disproportionately in foster care, and there are numerous bad outcomes for kids in foster care—in terms of their representation among the homeless and prison populations and their lower rates of high school and college graduation. This is not what the reformers thought they were creating, and that has to do with the fact that the family support systems they thought would make foster care obsolete have never been as robust as they need to be.”
Rymph says she hopes her book serves as a corrective to the negative stereotypes our society seems to have about every part of the system—negative views of birth parents who can’t take care of their children, negative views of foster parents as people who just do it for the money, negative views of foster children themselves, and negative views of social workers.
“What I try to do in this book is to take a sympathetic view on all of those perspectives,” Rymph says. “I really try to look at how things appear from multiple points of view and that they are all working within an impossible system.”
Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State will be published this October by University of North Carolina Press.