Foster Care

The foster care system is responsible for placing at-risk children with families other than their own, in group homes, or in institutions when they are unsafe, or are at risk of harm in their current situation. Other situations in which a child may be placed in foster care include the loss of his parents due to death, the inability of a parent to care for the child, or voluntary placement by the parents. Governmental agencies such as social service departments regulate foster care within each jurisdiction in the United States. To explore this concept, consider the following foster care definition.

Definition of Foster Care


  1. Supervised care in foster homes or institutions for abused, neglected, or orphaned children.
  2. The raising and supervision of children in a private home, group home, or institution, by individuals engaged and paid by a social service agency.


Early 1900s America

History of Foster Care

The concept of the foster care system dates back to the Biblical ages when widows of the church cared for orphaned children. In the 1500s, English laws were adopted to allow children to be placed with other families as indentured servants until they became adults. This practice was eventually adopted in the United States when children of deceased parents were placed into homes where they were forced to serve the families. In these situations, children were often abused while serving such families.

During these times, child abuse was socially accepted as discipline, and there were no laws preventing it. In 1852, Charles Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in New York. To deal with the issue of scores of immigrant children living on the streets at the time, Brace started the Orphan Train Movement in which orphaned children were sent across the country to work on farms. These children were sometimes embraced with love and respect, but many became virtual slaves, abused and required to work very long hours.

Because the emphasis was on providing abandoned and abused children a family life, this system ultimately became the foster care system used in the U.S. today, and in the early 1900s, governmental social service agencies began paying families to take in foster children, and regulating, inspecting, and overseeing foster homes.

What is Foster Care

Foster care revolves around children who cannot, for some reason, stay with, and be cared for by, their biological family. While the concept of foster care is the same, there are different types of foster care available, and the type into which a child is placed depends on the situation. It is often up to the social worker overseeing the case to determine where the child should be placed, and it is not uncommon for a child to experience more than one type during their time in the foster care system. Types of foster care situations include:

  • Relative Caregivers who take in children of a family member without being required to obtain a foster home license. This is ideal for keeping children with their families.
  • Foster homes are licensed family homes in which an adult couple takes in, and provides care for, foster children. Many foster homes accept children of a certain age, or serve as emergency shelters.
  • Group homes are licensed to care for six or more foster children at a time. Group homes are operated by social workers or other trained personnel, rather than concerned parents. Most commonly, children placed in group homes suffer from physical injuries or emotional trauma, or they simply do not fit well into family settings. Group homes are regulated by federal or state guidelines.

Becoming a Foster Family

Adults interested in becoming a foster family will find that each jurisdiction has slightly different requirements. Potential foster parents are required to attend a specified educational course offered by the social services department, pass background checks, and have their home inspected. There is usually a division of the social services department that is tasked with helping families become approved and prepared to care for foster children. Once a family has been certified as a foster family, they must continue to work with the social services department, which offers ongoing advice and training programs, and performs periodic reviews and inspections.

Foster Care Adoption

Many people seeking to grow their families do not consider foster care adoption when looking for adoptable kids. The fact is, more than 20,000 children grow up in foster care, and are turned out on their own when they reach the age of 18, without ever having the opportunity to have a loving, permanent family. This is known as “aging out of foster care.” When children in foster care cannot safely be reunited with their biological parents, they are made available for adoption, with the hope of providing them a stable, legally binding family relationship.

Foster care adoption is most often undertaken by foster families, and some of the children are eventually adopted by other biological relatives. For many of these children, however, foster care adoption simply does not happen. To consider foster care adoption, parents should contact their local child protective services agency. These agencies share information for prospective adoptive families, as well as how to go about foster care adoption.

The Landmark Foster Care Case of Mary Ellen Wilson

Mary Ellen Wilson was born in 1864 Hell’s Kitchen New York. Due to the death of her father and the ensuing financial hardship, Mary Ellen found her way into the New York City Department of Charities before she turned two. The Department of Charities placed Mary Ellen into the care of a couple illegally, without the proper documentation or checks.

It was some years later that neighbors became aware that little Mary Ellen was being seriously mistreated. Her foster mother beat her frequently, locked her in a closet, and forced her to do heavy labor. Determined to take action, one neighbor entered the foster home on some pretense, and witnessed evidence of physical abuse, starvation, and neglect. The neighbor found that local authorities were disinclined to take action, as child cruelty laws were basically nonexistent at the time.

The neighbor turned to the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Henry Bergh. The pair were successful in getting 10-year old Mary Ellen removed from the abusive home, and took the foster mother, Mary Connolly, to trial in 1874. During the trial, the child testified to the hardships and cruelties inflicted on her:

  • Regular and severe beatings
  • Insufficient food
  • Being forced to sleep on the floor
  • Having no warm clothes to wear in cold weather
  • Being frequently locked inside a dark room
  • Being forbidden to go outdoors, except at night in her own yard

Mary Ellen also testified that “Mamma has been …whipping and beating me almost every day. She struck me with the scissors and cut me,” and “I have no recollection of ever having been kissed by anyone.” Mary Connolly was found guilty, and sentenced to spend only one year in jail. In the wake of public outrage brought about by this case, however, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded. This was the first organization that sought to regulate foster care.

Foster Care Statistics

Unless a person is familiar with the foster care system, they may be surprised by actual foster care statistics. There is a great need for quality foster families in the United States, as the number of needy children is astounding. As of 2014:

  • There are more than 402,000 children in foster care in the U.S.
  • Children remain in foster care for around two years on average.
  • Eight percent of children stay in foster care for five years or more.
  • The average age of children in foster care is nine
  • African American children account for 24 percent of children in foster care
  • Children kept in group homes or institutions, as opposed to family foster homes, account for 14 percent of foster children.
  • As of 2013, the parents of nearly 60,000 children in foster care had their parental rights permanently terminated.
  • Each year, more than 20,000 young people age out of foster care without ever having received a permanent home, or being adopted by a forever family.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.