Foster Care: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going?

The American foster care system looks to provide children with supportive homes and adequate care. It is designed as a temporary solution when children are not receiving the care they need. The system also helps kids who have been mistreated, abused, neglected, or abandoned by their parents or guardians. This makes a well-functioning and supportive foster care system essential.

At Believe In Me, we believe that supporting children and ensuring that they grow up in a stable, loving, supportive environment is crucial to their success. A well-funded foster care system plays an important role in this mission, and the Foundation supports initiatives that contribute to this cause.

Let’s take a closer look at the foster care system, the challenges it faces, and the best way you can make a difference.

A Quick Look at the History of Foster Care

In 1853, Charles Loring Brace began the free foster home movement. He was a minister and the New York Children’s Aid Society director. He became concerned about the large number of children sleeping in the streets, struggling through poverty, and often turning to crime.

He sought to address the problem by advertising in Southern and Western states, seeking families who would be willing to house these children for charitable reasons or for the labor these children might be able to provide. This labor became a primary motivating factor for many of the families, meaning that some of the children who were sent off were, in reality, being signed up for work. Flawed as it was, this movement was crucial for establishing the roots of the modern foster care system.

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Children’s Aid Society further developed the Emigration Department, which was also known as the Placing-Out Department, and eventually the Foster Home Department. They sent tens of thousands of children to live with new families, most often on farms. This mass movement became known as the “orphan train.” However, many of these children weren’t orphans at all, but rather children whose guardians willingly surrendered them in hopes that they might find a better life elsewhere.

The Children’s Aid Society would regularly follow up with the children that they placed. Additionally, the children, and the families with which they stayed, were expected to maintain correspondence with the Children’s Aid Society. Sometimes these children were adopted, and other times they were moved into other homes if it didn’t seem to be a good fit for them. As this system continued to develop, a greater focus was placed on supporting families who wanted to regain custody of their children.

Around the 1920s, social work became a profession. Crucially, as the foster care program became more robust and an increased emphasis was placed on social welfare, children were increasingly placed in nearby homes rather than faraway farms. More localized programs became available, which presented better support and a system that was more well-equipped than before.

Through these early programs pioneered by the Children’s Aid Society, the scaffolding of the modern foster care system began to take shape.

Modern Foster Care in America: A Huge and Complex System

Here are some quick facts on foster care, pulled from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2020 report:

  • There were over 420,000 children in foster care as of September, 2019
  • More than 620,000 children had been served by the foster care system throughout 2019
  • The average age of a child in foster care was 8.4.
  • The median age of a child in foster care was 7.7
  • The average age of a child entering foster care was 7.2.
  • The median age of a child entering foster care was 6.3.
  • 63% of children were placed in foster care as a result of neglect
  • 34% of children were placed in foster care as a result of parental drug abuse

As these statistics illustrate, the foster care system has developed into a massive undertaking impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, many of whom are very young when they enter the system.

Though each of these children has a different story, they all have one thing in common: they’ve experienced some form of trauma in being separated from their families and entering the foster care system, and neglect is not uncommon.

Providing these children with the necessary care and support is a massive undertaking. There is no shortage of obstacles and challenges. Though foster care aims to transition these children into more long-term care solutions, many children will linger in this system for long periods of time. According to the same Health and Human Services report, on average, children remain in state care for over a year and a half, and 5% of children in foster care remain there for five years or more. Moving from foster home to foster home, some of these children never find the stability that is so crucial to their healthy development. This can present serious developmental hurdles, and, as data shows, many of these children will struggle significantly when they leave the foster care system.

With such a wide range of issues, and with each child coming from a unique situation, it can be difficult to understand and effectively address the particular issues we are facing. But it’s crucial that we explore these challenges so that we can try to develop effective solutions.

The Serious Challenges We Face:

There are a number of obstacles in ensuring that children in foster care receive the love, resources, and continuing support that they need to be successful.

According to Foster America:

  • 1 in 8 American children is abused or neglected by age 18
  • 1 in 17 kids will enter foster care
  • The rate of foster care placement increases to 1 in 9 for Black children and 1 in 7 for Native American children
  • More than 70% of youth involved in the juvenile justice system have been involved in the child welfare system
  • 50% of foster youth won’t graduate from high school on time
  • 48% of girls in foster care become pregnant by age 19
  • 60% of child trafficking victims have histories in foster care
  • 33% of homeless young adults were previously in foster care
  • Kids in foster care are four times more likely than other children to attempt suicide

These statistics clarify the pervasive issues with the current system and the need to reimagine how we handle foster care.

The Importance of the Continuum of Care

One crucial aspect of effectively supporting children in the foster care system is establishing a continuum of care. As stated by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, the goal of this approach is to use “the most appropriate and least restrictive interventions, both in or out of the home, while ensuring that safety issues and needs are addressed.”

According to the National Council for Adoption, research indicates that placing children in family-based care instead of institutional care is crucial to their healthy development.
In addition to being family-based, the care will ideally be temporary, judge-approved, and overseen by a social worker. With oversight and continued support that follows each child from entry to exit of the foster care system, we are better able to ensure that no child ever falls through the cracks. Each child should receive the resources and support they need to transition into and out of foster care successfully. The goal is to have a forever home that is safe, loving, and supportive.

Supporting Foster Care Programs With Believe In Me

Every child deserves a safe and happy place to call home and a supporting and nurturing family as they grow. The foster care system is intended to temporarily place children, support them until they find their forever home, or return them to their family. But as it currently exists, the foster care system struggles to support the staggering number of children who enter it. This makes outside organizations a crucial component of identifying issues and addressing them quickly and effectively. At Believe In Me, we believe in supporting the programs that protect, stabilize, and nurture our children, particularly in the Spokane, Washington area where we are based.

At any given moment, Spokane has 700-800 children in foster care, being cared for by a close relative, a foster family, or within a group facility. While more than half go back to live with their family, the goal of our programs is to make sure foster kids are matched with a stable forever family, wherever that may be. We proudly support programs that provide foster kids with the support they need while also equipping families for effective foster parenting or adoption.

Two of the organizations we’ve partnered with in the Spokane area are the YWCA and Embrace Washington.


YWCA Spokane’s child and youth trauma support services support healing and growth for kids who have experienced complex trauma.

Each year, through outreach, group activities, and one-on-one support, over 400 children who have witnessed or experienced violence in their home receive support from YWCA, helping them to understand that family violence is not normal or accepted.

Support for children 18 years old or younger includes one-on-one interaction as well as family counseling. Additionally, education and support groups are provided for the parent and/or guardian to assist with the movement of the family unit through trauma.

Embrace Washington

Embrace Washington looks to eliminate any roadblocks that foster parents face to provide a normal happy life for a child in foster care. This could include providing a foster child a new bed, helping with educational support, paying for summer camp, or supporting involvement in music or sports, just to name a few. For foster children and their families, these activities build healthy memories and provide experiences that allow kids to feel loved and stable during an uncertain time in their lives.

Together, We Can Ensure a Bright Future for the Foster Care System

The American foster care system continues to face serious challenges. There is much to be done to ensure that children who enter foster care are supported as they safely move to a long-term living environment. At Believe In Me, our continuing mission is to support these children and their families, providing them with the resources they need to ensure that every child can live in a stable, nurturing, supportive environment.

Get to know more about Believe In Me and Help a Kid Today

About the Author

Share Article

Related Posts

Black History Month 2024

Celebrating Black History Month: Believe in Me’s Commitment to BIPOC Youth Empowerment with The Bronze Chapter

Black History Month’s Roots and The Bronze Chapter’s Impact  As we honor Black History Month this February, it’s an excellent ...
Read Article
Teen & Kid Closet

Investing in Dignity: Believe in Me’s $5,000 Grant Boosts Teen & Kid Closet’s Mission

Fostering Confidence and Belonging with Teen & Kid Closet At the heart of our mission lies the unwavering belief that ...
Read Article
Scroll to Top