The foster care movement in the United States was born primarily due to the lifelong efforts of Charles Loring Brace to provide a better life for the thousands of homeless and neglected children he found throughout New York City. He believed that every child deserved to have a proper upbringing by loving parents and felt that Christian farm families at the time were best suited to care for the children who had been discarded. Both then and now, the foster care system united some with loving families and was abused by others who sought to exploit children who had nowhere else to go.
Foster Care in the 1800’s
The Orphan Train Movement received its name by the way Charles Loring Brace would send orphaned children to new families via train. The movement helped over 120,000 children between 1853 and 1890 and would be the basis of legislation passed into law over a century later that regulates child protection and the process in which children are given into the care of foster parents. Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society and his two sons took the organization over after he passed away, continuing his work until the Great Depression.
Prior to the Great Depression, children were paired with families that had previously requested to be allowed to adopt a child. Forms were filled out specifying the desired age, gender and additional features in a desired child and the Children’s Aid Society would match children with families based on the needs of the children and the desires of the families. When the foster care system was handled in this manner, it resulted in loving families acquiring children that they wanted, loved and cared for properly.
There were some who abused the foster care system, however, and trainloads of children could be unloaded on a platform where prospective parents would examine them and treat them as potential workers or servants rather than children in need of a home. In some cases, brothers and sisters were separated and those who were not selected would be sent away dejected, emotionally scarred and no better off than they were before. The exploitation of the early foster care system was not the status quo, luckily, and most of the parents who adopted children did so because they were unable to conceive on their own and had genuine love for the children they took into their homes.
Modern Foster Care
The aim of modern foster care agencies is to find a temporary family for children until a more suitable adoptive family can be found. In many instances, foster parents may choose to adopt the children that they provide foster care for. Being moved around too frequently can be damaging to the mental and emotional health of a child, so attempts are made at creating permanence by trying to pair children with positive influences in their lives such as family members, mentors or even a teacher or coach who is willing to adopt.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 was signed into law by Bill Clinton in an attempt to address the potential pitfalls with the foster care process and limit the ability of families to abuse the system. The law was modeled after the manner in which Charles Loring Brace approached foster care— by attempting to pair children with the families that would most want them and be able to care for them. Foster children are only allowed to be separated from their siblings under special circumstances, receive special health care coverage and are subject to yearly permanency hearings and parents have access to resources that will allow them to provide financially for the children in their care through subsidies and incentives.
Negative Impact of Foster Care on Children’s’ Health
The elevated stress level caused by moving between families and through the adoptive process takes its toll on children. Studies have shown that children who have been part of the foster care system are at a greater risk of developing mental, emotional or developmental disorders due to the trauma and stress they are put through. Some children are brought into the system because of prior abuse while others are given up voluntarily due to their parents’ inability to care for them. Foster children and those who are adopted at a late age are prone to the following disorders.
- Depression— Foster children are much more likely to develop some form of depression and have shown a higher tendency to attempt or commit suicide.
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—There is a stark difference in the occurrence of ADHD in foster children when compared to children who are not under foster care or adopted.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder— Whether it is due to prior abuse or anxiety caused by feelings of hopelessness, not being wanted or a lack of permanency; the incident rate of PSTD among foster children is higher than found among veterans who have experienced combat. Physical or sexual abuse greatly increases the rate of PTSD, with 60% of children who endured sexual abuse and 42% of children who experienced physical abuse experiencing some form of PTSD.
- Neurological Disorders— Stress causes the release of cortisol, which is a hormone that can impact cognitive development and immune responses. Children who undergo excessive stress can fail to develop properly or suffer from neurological disorders later in life.
- Eating Disorders— Studies have shown that foster and adopted children are at an increased risk of developing eating disorders such as overeating and binging. Many of these children suffer from childhood obesity as a result and can develop type two diabetes, heart disease and other weight related disorders.
- Homelessness— Nearly half of foster children will become homeless at or close to the age of eighteen.
Foster Care Negligence
While many children do go on to live happy lives after being adopted by their foster families, some families abuse the system. It is the duty of foster care services to properly screen families and to ensure that the children are not being treated poorly or unfairly. It is growing more common for foster families to take in children for the financial benefits they receive but to fail to give the compassionate and loving care that foster children deserve and need so desperately.
There is a staggering rate of sexual abuse and physical and emotional neglect among foster children and nearly 10% of foster care remain in the system for longer than 5 years (look here for further discussion). Proper screening and monitoring of the conditions that foster children are subjected to are instrumental in preventing abuse, neglect and improper care but many children fall through the cracks and wind up in situations that are as bad as or worse than those that they were previously in.
Does the accountability for foster care abuse rest on the foster care workers or on the abusive foster parents when children are placed in homes that are abusive, neglectful or harmful to the wellbeing of children? Foster children have often been put through a lot in their short lives and it is important that we examine the system and the quality of foster families more closely so that we can improve the process and provide justice to the children who endured suffering because of the failure of the system to serve their needs.