Foster care in the United States

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The Children's Aid Society started the Orphan Train Movement in 1853 to help the homeless, abused and orphaned children living on the streets of New York City; the beginning of the modern-day foster care system in the United States. Jacob Riis' "Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters 1890." Mulberry Street in Manhattan.

Foster care is the term used for a system in which a minor who has been made a ward is placed in an institution, group home (residential child care community, residential treatment center, etc.), or private home of a state certified caregiver (referred to as a "foster parent"). The placement of the child is usually arranged through the government or a social-service agency. The institution, group home or foster parent is provided compensation for expenses.[1]

The state via the family court and child protection agency stand in loco parentis to the minor, making all legal decisions, while the foster parent is responsible for the day-to-day care of the minor. The foster parent is remunerated by the state for their services.

In the United States, foster home licensing requirements vary from state to state, but are generally overseen by each state's Department of Child Protective Services or Human Services. In some states, counties have this responsibility. Each state's services are monitored by the federal Department of Health and Human Services through reviews such as Child and Family Services Reviews, Title IV-E Foster Care Eligibility Reviews, Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, and Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System Assessment Reviews.[2]

The foster parent licensing process is often similar to the process to become licensed to adopt. It requires preparation classes as well as an application process. The application varies but may include: a minimum age; verification that your income allows you to meet your expenses; a criminal record check at local, state and federal levels including fingerprinting and no prior record of child abuse or neglect; a reference from a doctor to ensure that all household members are free from diseases that a child could catch and are in sufficient health to parent a child; and letters of reference from an employer and others who know them.

Another option for placements are Residential Child Care Communities or, in case of severe behavioral or mental challenges, Residential Treatment Centers (RTCs). The focus of treatment in such facilities is often to prepare the child for a return to a foster home, to an adoptive home, or to the birth parents when applicable; however, some children also stay in long-term care. The effectiveness of these facilities is often questioned,[3] but considerable benefits of these types of care have been found as well.[4][5][6]

There are some children in foster care who are difficult to place in permanent homes through the normal adoption process. These children are often said to require "special-needs adoption." In this context, "special needs" can include situations where children have specific chronic medical problems, mental health issues, behavioral problems, and/or learning disabilities. In some cases, sibling groups and older children qualify as "special needs."[7] Governments offer a variety of incentives and services to facilitate this class of adoptions.[8]


In the United States, foster care started as a result of the efforts of Charles Loring Brace. "In the mid 19th Century, some 30,000 homeless or neglected children lived in the New York City streets and slums."[9] Brace took these children off the streets and placed them with families in most states in the country. Brace believed the children would do best with a Christian farm family. He did this to save them from "a lifetime of suffering"[10] He sent these children to families by train, which gave the name The Orphan Train Movement. "[This] lasted from 1853 to the early 1890s [1929?] and transported more than 120,000 [250,000?] children to new lives."[11] When Brace died in 1890, his sons took over his work of the Children's Aid Society until they retired.[10] The Children's Aid Society created "a foster care approach that became the basis for the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997" called Concurrent Planning. This greatly impacted the foster care system. Children's Aid works with the biological and foster parents to "achieve permanency".[9] "From the mid-1800s to the eve of the Great Depression, orphan train children were placed with families who pre-selected them with an order form, specifying age, gender, hair and eye color. In other cases, trainloads of children were assembled on stages, train platforms or town halls and examined by prospective parents. "Conjuring the image of picking the best apple from the bin. Sometimes a child would be separated from his or her brothers and sisters, or would end up in a family that only wanted them to work. Most of the time the children were chosen by a loving or childless family".[12]


Length of time spent in foster care for children exiting care in 2010.[13]

  < 1 month (13%)
  1–11 months (33%)
  12–23 months (24%)
  24–35 months (12%)
  3–4 years (10%)
  5+ years (7%)

In 2016, there were 437,465 children in foster care in the United States.[14] 48% were in nonrelative foster homes, 26% were in relative foster homes, 9% in institutions, 6% in group homes, 5% on trial home visits (where the child returns home while under state supervision), 4% in preadoptive homes, 2% had run away, and 1% in supervised independent living.[15] Of 254,114 who exited foster care in 2010, 51% were reunited with parents or caretakers, 21% were adopted, 11% were emancipated (as minors or by aging out), 8% went to live with another relative, 6% went to live with a guardian, and 3% had other outcomes.[16] Of these children, the median length of time spent in foster care was 13.5 months. 13% were in care for less than 1 month, 33% for 1 to 11 months, 24% for 12 to 23 months, 12% for 24 to 35 months, 10% for 3 to 4 years, and 7% for 5 years or more.[13]

Foster care by state[edit]


California has the largest population of foster care youth in the nation,[17] with 55,218 children in the system as of 2012.[18] This is over twice as many as the 20,529 foster children in New York,[19] the state with the second largest population of foster youth,[17] had by the end of 2012. Over 30 percent of California foster youth reside in Los Angeles County, amounting to 18,523 children.[18] Children can be removed from their homes and placed into the foster care system for a variety of reasons, but in California, 81.2 percent of children were removed because of neglect.[20] Even after being placed in the foster care system, however, these children might not find the kind of care or stability they need. Girls in foster care have been shown to have marginally higher rates of teenage pregnancy than the general population of California.[21] Children in foster care also have to face disproportionately higher rates of mental illnesses as some studies have shown that as much as 47.9 percent of foster care youth showed signs of serious emotional or behavioral issues.[22]

After "aging out" of the system at age 18, research has shown that previous foster youth still face difficult instability in their lives. As much as 30 percent of previous foster children are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.[22] Only about 50 percent graduate from high school[22] and less than 10 percent graduate from college.[23] A study focused on foster care alumni in Los Angeles County showed that about 65 percent leave foster care without a place to live and 25 percent are incarcerated by age 20.[23] Despite these difficulties, California is working toward easing the transition for foster youth through programs and legislation like the California Fostering Connections to Success Act of 2010, which expanded upon similar federal legislation and increased the age limit for receiving foster care benefits.[23]


The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services manages foster care in the state. As of 2014 Black children are disproportionately high in the system, even despite an increase of Hispanic children from 2002 to 2013.[24]


After a class action lawsuit was filed in 1984, a federal court ruled that Maryland had not been ensuring the constitutional rights of its foster children. As a result, the state's foster care program was placed under a consent decree in 1988.[25] The decree remained in place in 2003 when state employee Michelle Lane discovered and made known continued issues with social worker assignments under the program.[26] In 2009, the decree was modified to apply various standards independent of federal or constitutional requirements. As of September 2018, Maryland's foster care program remained under court supervision, with an exit requiring full compliance with the consent decree for three six-month reporting periods in a row.[25][27]

Funding and system incentives[edit]

A law passed by Congress in 1961 allowed AFDC (welfare) payments to pay for foster care which was previously made only to children in their own homes. This made aided funding foster care for states and localities, facilitating rapid growth. In some cases, the state of Texas paid mental treatment centers as much as $101,105 a year per child. Observers of the growth trend note that a county will only continue to receive funding while it keeps the child in its care. This may create a "perverse financial incentive" to place and retain children in foster care rather than leave them with their parents, and incentives are sometimes set up for maximum intervention.

Findings of a grand jury investigation in Santa Clara, California:[28]

The Grand Jury heard from staff members of the DFCS and others outside the department that the department puts too much money into "back-end services," i.e., therapists and attorneys, and not enough money into "front-end" or basic services. The county does not receive as much in federal funds for "front-end" services, which could help solve the problems causing family inadequacies, as it receives for out-of-home placements or foster care services. In other words, the Agency benefits, financially, from placing children in foster homes.

Foster care legislation since 1990[edit]

In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) was passed.[29] This reduced the time children are allowed to remain in foster care before being available for adoption. The new law requires state child welfare agencies to identify cases where "aggravated circumstances" make permanent separation of child from the birth family the best option for the safety and well-being of the child. One of the main components of ASFA is the imposition of stricter time limits on reunification efforts. Proponents of ASFA claimed that before the law was passed, the lack of such legislation was the reason it was common for children to languish in care for years with no permanent living situation identified.

Opponents of ASFA argued that the real reason children languished in foster care was that too many were taken needlessly from their parents in the first place. Since ASFA did not address this, opponents said, it would not accomplish its goals, and would only slow a decline in the foster care population that should have occurred anyway because of a decline in reported child abuse.[30]

Ten years after ASFA became law, the number of children in foster care on any given day was about 7,000 fewer than before ASFA was passed.[31]

The Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, helps foster youth who are aging out of care to achieve self-sufficiency. The U.S. government has also funded the Education and Training Voucher Program in recent years in order to help youth who age out of care to obtain college or vocational training at a free or reduced cost. Chafee and ETV money is administered by each state as they see fit.

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 is the most recent piece of major federal legislation addressing the foster care system. This bill extended various benefits and funding for foster children between the age of 18 and 21 and for Indian children in tribal areas. The legislation also strengthens requirements for states in their treatment of siblings and introduces mechanisms to provide financial incentives for guardianship and adoption.[32][33]

Constitutional issues[edit]

In May 2007, the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found in ROGERS v. COUNTY OF SAN JOAQUIN, No. 05-16071[34] that a CPS social worker who removed children from their natural parents into foster care without obtaining judicial authorization, was acting without due process and without exigency (emergency conditions), and therefore violated the 14th Amendment and Title 42 United States Code Section 1983. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution says that a state may not make a law that abridges "... the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States" and no state may "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Title 42 United States Code Section 1983[35] states that citizens can sue in federal courts any person that acting under a color of law to deprive the citizens of their civil rights under the pretext of a regulation of a state.[36]

In case of Santosky v. Kramer, 455 US 745, the United States Supreme Court reviewed a case when the Department of Social Services[where?] (DSS) removed two younger children from their natural parents only because the parents had been previously found negligent toward their oldest daughter.[37] When the third child was only three days old, DSS transferred him to a foster home on the ground that immediate removal was necessary to avoid imminent danger to his life or health. The Supreme Court vacated previous judgment and stated: "Before a State may sever completely and irrevocably the rights of parents in their natural child, due process requires that the State support its allegations by at least clear and convincing evidence... But until the State proves parental unfitness, the child and his parents share a vital interest in preventing erroneous termination of their natural relationship".[37]

Also District of Columbia Court of Appeals conclude that the lower trial court erred in rejecting the relative custodial arrangement selected by the natural mother who tried to preserve her relationship with the child.[38] The previous judgment granting the foster mother's adoption petition was reversed, and the case remanded to the trial court to vacate the orders granting adoption and denying custody, and to enter an order granting custody to the child's relative.[38]

In 2007 Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick obtained a jury verdict against Orange County (California) and two of its social workers for violating her Fourteenth Amendment rights to familial association by unlawfully placing her kids in foster care.[39] The $4.9 million verdict grew to a $9.5 million judgment as the County lost each of its successive appeals.[39] The case finally ended in 2011 when the United States Supreme Court denied Orange County's request to overturn the verdict.[40]

Abuse and negligence[edit]

In 2010, an ex-foster child was awarded $30 million by jury trial in California (Santa Clara County) for sexual abuse damages that happened to him in his foster home from 1995 to 1999; he was represented by Stephen John Estey.[41][42][43] The foster parent, John Jackson, was licensed by the state, despite the fact that he abused his own wife and son, overdosed on drugs and was arrested for drunken driving. In 2006, Jackson was convicted in Santa Clara County of nine counts of lewd or lascivious acts on a child by force, violence, duress, menace and fear, and seven counts of lewd or lascivious acts on a child under 14, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office.[41] The sex acts that he forced the children in his foster care to perform sent him to prison for 220 years. Later in 2010, Giarretto Institute, the private foster family agency responsible for licensing and monitoring Jackson's foster home and others, was also found to be negligent and liable for 75 percent of the abuse that was inflicted on the victim, and Jackson himself was liable for the rest.[41]

In 2009, Oregon Department of Human Services agreed to pay $2 million into a fund for the future care of twins who were allegedly abused by their foster parents; this was the largest such settlement in the agency's history.[44] According to the civil rights suit filed on request of the twins' adoptive mother in December 2007 in U.S. Federal Court, the children were kept in makeshift cages—cribs covered with chicken wire secured by duct tape—in a darkened bedroom known as "the dungeon." The brother and sister often went without food, water or human touch. The boy, who had a shunt put into his head at birth to drain fluid, did not receive medical attention, so when police rescued the twins he was nearly comatose. The same foster family previously took into their care hundreds of other children over nearly four decades.[45] DHS said the foster parents deceived child welfare workers during the checkup visits.[44]

Several lawsuits were brought in 2008 against the Florida Department of Children & Families (DCF), accusing it of mishandling reports that Thomas Ferrara, 79, a foster parent, was molesting young girls.[46][47] The suits claimed that even though there were records of sexual misconduct allegations against Ferrara in 1992, 1996, and 1999, the DCF continued to place foster children with Ferrara and his then-wife until 2000.[46] Ferrara was arrested in 2001, after a 9-year-old girl told detectives he regularly molested her over two years and threatened to hurt her mother if she told anyone. Records show that Ferrara had as many as 400 children go through his home during his 16 years as a licensed foster parent (from 1984 to 2000).[46] Officials stated that the lawsuits over Ferrara ended up costing the DCF almost $2.26 million.[47] Similarly, in 2007 Florida's DCF paid $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged DCF ignored complaints that another mentally disabled Immokalee girl was being raped by her foster father, Bonifacio Velazquez, until the 15-year-old gave birth to a child.[48][49][50]

In a class action lawsuit Charlie and Nadine H. v. McGreevey[51] was filed in federal court by "Children's Rights" New York organization on behalf of children in the custody of the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS).[52][53] The complaint alleged violations of the children's constitutional rights and their rights under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, Early Periodic Screening Diagnosis and Treatment, 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA).[54] In July 2002, the federal court granted plaintiffs' experts access to 500 children's case files, allowing plaintiffs to collect information concerning harm to children in foster care through a case record review.[52] These files revealed numerous cases in which foster children were abused, and DYFS failed to take proper action. On June 9, 2004, the child welfare panel appointed by the parties approved the NJ State's Reform Plan. The court accepted the plan on June 17, 2004.[53] The same organization also filed similar lawsuits against several other states in recent years that caused some of the states to start child welfare reforms.[55]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Foster care". Retrieved 2012-06-16.
  2. ^ "Children's Bureau Website – Child Welfare Monitoring". Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  3. ^ Richard Barth, Institutions vs. Foster Homes, the Empirical Base for a Century of Action (University of North Carolina, Jordan Institute for Families, February 17, 2002; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Report of the Surgeon General's Conference on children's mental health: A national action agenda. Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office, 2000.USGPO
  4. ^ Thompson RW, Smith GL, Osgood DW, Dowd TP, Friman PC, Daly DL. Residential care: A study of short- and long-term educational effects. Children and Youth Services Review. 1996;18(3):221–242.
  5. ^ Larzelere RE, Daly EL, Davis JL, Chmelka MB, Handwerk ML. Outcome evaluation of Girls and Boys Town s Family Home Program. Education and Treatment of Children. 2004;27(2):130–149.
  6. ^ Slot NW, Jagers HD, Dangel RF. Cross-cultural replication and evaluation of the Teaching Family Model of community-based residential treatment. Behavioral Residential Treatment. 1992;7(5):341–354.
  7. ^ "Common Myths About Adoption". AdoptUSKids. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  8. ^ JSTOR, Judith K. McKenzie. Adoption of Children with Special Needs, Brookings Institution: The Future of Children, Vol. 3, No. 1, Adoption (Spring, 1993), pp. 62–76
  9. ^ a b "Foster Care History & Accomplishments." The Children's Aid Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2013.
  10. ^ a b Nordmark, Oliver. "Orphan Train History." : REVEREND CHARLES LORING BRACE. N.p., 09 Feb. 2010. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.
  11. ^ "Foster Care History & Accomplishments." The Children's Aid Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2013
  12. ^ Chin, Richard. "'Orphan Train' Riders Share Common Bond: Until 1929, Children Abandoned on New York Streets were Sent West to Begin New Lives with New Families. Few Orphan Train Riders Survive, but for those Who do, their 'Bond is Forever.'." McClatchy – Tribune Business News: 0. Sep 19 2007. ProQuest. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
  13. ^ a b Child Welfare Information Gateway (2012), Foster Care Statistics 2010 (PDF), Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau, pp. 6–7
  14. ^ "The AFCARS Report" (PDF). External link in |website= (help)
  15. ^ Child Welfare Information Gateway (2012), Foster Care Statistics 2010 (PDF), Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau, p. 4
  16. ^ Child Welfare Information Gateway (2012), Foster Care Statistics 2010 (PDF), Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau, pp. 5–6
  17. ^ a b Balfour, Jeannine. "Celebrating National Foster Care Month." Conrad N. Hilton Foundation 24 May 2013. Web. 22 May 2014.
  18. ^ a b "Number of Children in Foster Care." Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health. 2012. Web. 22 May 2014.
  19. ^ "Become a Foster Parent." New York State Office of Children and Family Services. Web. 22 May 2014.
  20. ^ "First Entries into Foster Care, by Reason for Removal." Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health. 2012. Web. 22 May 2014.
  21. ^ King, Bryn, et al. "A Cross-Sectional Examination of Birth Rates Among Adolescent Girls in Foster Care." Children & Youth Services Review 36.(2014): 179-186. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 May 2014.
  22. ^ a b c Orlando, Stephanie. "The Intersection of Foster Care and Mental Health." National Council of Disability. Web. 22 May 2014.
  23. ^ a b c "Achieving Healthy and Productive Lives for Transition-Age Youth in Foster Care." Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Web. 22 May 2014.
  24. ^ Cheung, Monit; Patrick Leung. "Racial Disproportionality in the Foster Care System in Texas:".
  25. ^ a b Bursch, John; Corrigan, Maura (June 1, 2016). "Rethinking consent decrees: how federal-court decrees in child welfare can harm those they are supposed to help and upset the federal-state balance". American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved December 16, 2019 – via The Free Library.
  26. ^ Snyder, David (April 5, 2005). "Md. Foster Care Study Lists Problems". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  27. ^ Prudente, Tim (September 4, 2018). "Attorneys: Social Services again illegally keeping Baltimore foster children overnight in offices". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  28. ^ 1992–93 Santa Clara County Grand Jury, Final Report, Investigation: Department Of Family And Children's Services, 1993.
  29. ^ "Children's Bureau Express Online Digest". November 2006 Vol. 7, No. 8.[dead link]
  30. ^ U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Child Maltreatment, 2004, Figure 3-2, Archived 2012-04-01 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ As of March, 1998, four months after ASFA became law, there were 520,000 children in foster care, (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, AFCARS Report #1. Archived 2006-09-26 at the Wayback Machine It took until September 30, 2005, for the number to fall to 513,000 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Trends in Foster Care and Adoption,
  32. ^ "Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act". 2008-10-07. Archived from the original on 2010-07-22. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  33. ^ "Bill Summary & Status - 110th Congress (2007 - 2008) - H.R.6893 - All Information - THOMAS (Library of Congress)". Retrieved 2016-05-07.
  34. ^ "ROGERS v. COUNTY OF SAN JOAQUIN, No. 05-16071". Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  35. ^ "Title 42 United States Code Section 1983". 2010-10-15. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  36. ^ "Civil Rights Complaint Guide" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-09-07.
  37. ^ a b "Santosky v. Kramer, 455 US 745 – Supreme Court 1982".
  38. ^ a b "In re TJ, 666 A. 2d 1 – DC: Court of Appeals 1995".
  39. ^ a b "Order Granting Fees Incurred on Appeal".
  40. ^ "U.S. Supreme Court Denies Orange County's (California) Request".
  41. ^ a b c "South Bay sex-abuse lawsuit: Ex-foster child awarded $30 million – San Jose Mercury News". 2010-08-05. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  42. ^ "Estey & Bomberger announces Jury Awards $30 Million in San Jose Molestation Case". 2010-08-05.
  44. ^ a b Aimee Green, The Oregonian (2009-04-04). "Gresham foster kids abused despite DHS checks". Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  45. ^ Michelle Cole, The Oregonian (2009-09-02). "Abuse in children's foster care: State officials call for outside review". Retrieved 2011-11-01.
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  47. ^ a b "Foster parent, 79, accused of molesting girls in his care". Archived from the original on 2012-06-23.
  48. ^ Swift, Aisling. "Child of rape now 9, yet DCF settlement held up » Naples Daily News". Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  49. ^ "Florida Committee Substitute for Senate Bill No. 60".
  50. ^ Senator Storms (2010). Florida Senate - 2010 Archived 2014-02-03 at the Wayback Machine.
  51. ^ "Charlie and Nadine H. v. McGreevey". Archived from the original on 2013-01-13. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  52. ^ a b "New Jersey (Charlie and Nadine H. v. Christie) — Children's Rights". Archived from the original on 2011-10-01. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  53. ^ a b "Charlie and Nadine H. v. Codey, also known as Charlie and Nadine H. v. McGreevey and Charlie and Nadine H. v. Whitman : National Center for Youth Law". Archived from the original on 2013-01-13. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  54. ^ "Legal Documents(Charlie and Nadine H. v. Corzine)". Archived from the original on 2010-12-25.
  55. ^ Home Reform Campaigns Results of Reform Results of Reform. "Results of Reform — Children's Rights". Archived from the original on 2011-10-29. Retrieved 2011-11-01.