Foster Parenting

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Foster Parenting

Foster parenting is generally defined as caring for children who cannot remain in their birth homes because their parents are either absent or incapacitated. Throughout history, families and societies have made arrangements for children who were orphaned, abandoned, separated from family by war or epidemic, and, since the mid-nineteenth century, mistreated to the extent that they were unsafe with their parents.


It has been the custom of many societies and times for the extended family, or designated relationship kin such as godparents or the child's mother's brothers, to take in orphaned children. In the Old Testament the law requiring a man to marry his brother's widow served to keep children in the home of kin. The story of Moses, abandoned and subsequently found and fostered by the daughter of Pharaoh, is a familiar one, the prototype of many hero stories in which a significant individual was raised by a nonrelative. Medieval Europe made use of monasteries and convents to care for children placed there by their families as a career choice, as a source of education for children of upper-class families, and also to care for a certain number of orphans who had no provision for their upkeep. Following the Reformation, when religious communities were scattered, laws such as the Poor Laws of 1501 in England required communities to make provision for orphans and other destitute persons. Children old enough to be apprenticed or placed to learn a trade (with a farmer, blacksmith, or in domestic service for a girl, for example) were usually dealt with in that manner; younger children or those with a handicap were housed at the Poor Farm or other facility, with no special arrangements made for their education or supervision.

In the early years of the United States, as in Europe and England, this responsibility for a town or county to provide for orphans without resources generally was adhered to and developed in local law. Families, of course, continued to care for their young relatives whose parents were dead or incapacitated, but those without family resources were considered the responsibility of the local authorities, as localities became settled and government developed. Municipalities continued to place older children in apprenticeships, in domestic work, or with families who needed workers on the farm.

During the nineteenth century, a movement to institutionalize and centralize the care of dependent children led to the development of orphanages. Other special populations were also institutionalized at this period—for example, those with mental handicaps and prisoners. Institutions for the hearing- and sight-impaired also developed, as a more efficient and humane way of dealing with this population, incorporating some form of training or education. Following the Civil War, the United States looked to other ways to care for children, as institutionalization proved to be no protection against mishandling and poor outcomes. As mentioned above, efforts to place children in apprenticeships, teaching them a trade, were an approved solution offered by governmental bodies in providing for orphaned or unsupervised children. As industrialization took over the eastern part of the United States, with its more highly trained workforce, there were fewer agricultural and untrained labor jobs available, leading to a concern that children who grew up in orphanages would turn to crime. Another fear at this point was the belief that children of immigrants, particularly from southern and eastern Europe, were somehow by their heritage less likely to have an appropriate work ethic, high personal standards of moral behavior, and resistance to various forms of unlawful life, such as robbery, alcohol use, and prostitution. Charles Loring Brace, a young minister in New York City, appalled by the living conditions of children in the tenements, formed the Children's Aid Society in 1853 to begin modern foster care. He made various efforts to help children in the urban environment—shelters, training programs, and savings banks. However, he felt strongly that children removed from the unsanitary and morally compromised environment of city life to rural life in the West would have a better chance to grow up physically and mentally healthy, with a future in that part of the country where agriculture, construction, and all the other activities of the westward movement would provide a decent and lawabiding living. Brace's Orphan Trains (and others following the Children's Aid Society model, which ran until 1929) transported thousands of children to the Midwest and West. His efforts placed children in family homes as the ideal placement for them and were the beginning of foster care as it is now understood.

Even after the advantages of placement in family homes were generally accepted, it was not until the 1980s that child psychology and developmental information began to change the philosophy behind foster homes to consider needs of children beyond their physical care, health, and housing. In 1980 the federal government passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, which spoke to these negative issues of the casual moving of children from home to home and the lack of effort made to prevent the initial removal from the birth family. Although children's physical and medical needs were met, their education provided, and their safety from neglect and abuse assured, they tended to drift in foster care, with few efforts to reunite them with their birth family or initiate efforts towards remediation of the conditions that caused their removal. The uncertainty of being permanently a foster child, having no official determination of length of stay, and no connection with his or her birth family began to be seen as emotionally troubling as the traumatic occurrence that determined the child's entrance into foster care. The term permanency planning describes these initiatives to coordinate court efforts, set up rehabilitation services for parents who had lost care of their children, and to review children's situations within the agency in a timely manner to determine whether the services met the needs of both parents and children and helped them reunite if possible. Reunification became the primary permanency planning goal for a child, with relative placement or timely adoption being a secondary goal to give a child a permanent home.

With the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997, efforts to place children with family members, either short term or long term, spoke to the growing understanding of the need for identification with one's own family. Efforts to encourage extended or fictive family to care for children brought a new term, kinship care, to the fore. From the moment that removal from the birth parent is considered, child welfare workers begin the search for individuals related to the child by blood, by marriage, or by family custom (fictive kin), who might be a resource for the child. The rationale for kinship placement is that it maintains the connection with the child's extended family and its history and culture, encourages possible ease and naturalness of contact with birth parents, and continues the child's care with as little upset or change as possible. Kinship care also employs the oldest solution for children who cannot be cared for by birth parents—placement with family members. In many cultures the extended family has always had this responsibility, and Americans of Hispanic, Native American, and African American background see kinship care as very much in their cultural tradition.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act also mandated a shortened time in care for children, by setting a calendar for the court to make a decision about the permanent placement of a child— reunification with the parent from whom they were removed, permanent placement with a family member, or termination of parental rights and adoption—by one year from the day a child was removed from his birth home or primary caretaker. Services to facilitate reunification were to be extended very promptly to the birth parents to help changes occur, ensuring that the child could safely be returned to the parental home. And finally, reviews were to take place in a timely manner so that cooperation with the plan of service could be evaluated, and every possible avenue of assistance to the family might be effected.

Modern Trends

At the end of September 1998, there were 568,000 children in foster care in the United States. Of this number, 26 percent were in the homes of relatives, and 48 percent were in family foster homes. (The remainder of children in substitute care were in group and treatment homes, preadoptive placements, and other arrangements, including institutions for children with mental or physical disabilities.) By the end of the reporting period in 1990, 405,743 were in care (Foster Care Statistics, see U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

However, the same database reflects another trend; children entering substitute care and those leaving care are older, indicating children whose emotional, educational, and therapeutic needs are more serious than the younger children entering care previously. The prevalence of substance abuse is bringing children into substitute care who may have some medical or learning problems from their own drug-positive status at birth or who, being older, have experienced poor supervision, neglect, or abuse for a longer time. Many kinship caregivers are, formally and informally, caring for the children of relatives caught up in the drug world. It is also true that whether or not substance abuse is a factor contributing to families being reported for child abuse or neglect, relatives may refuse to care for children whose behavior problems are so severe that the extended family has already taxed its resources to care for the child before child protective workers intervened. Thus, children entering substitute care to be placed in nonrelative homes are children whose behavior may have already deteriorated to the point that relatives and family friends feel unable to help.

Foster parents not only provide safety, physical care, and access to medical and educational services, but they also remediate the deficits that brought children into out-of-home care. Many people would first think of remediation of nutritional and care deficits, which many neglected children certainly have experienced. Medical check ups, continued monitoring of a chronic condition, and dental care are all immediate needs of children placed in foster homes. Educational needs met in foster care may include regular school attendance, referral of a child for special evaluation for learning or cognitive problems, discovery of an untreated sight or hearing problem, and interaction with the school system to establish and monitor the special education status of a child with learning, behavioral, or emotional problems. In addition, foster parents must work on neglected hygiene, age-appropriate behavior and social interactions, and modeling safe interactions to children who have been sexually abused. Foster parents, even those experienced in childcare through raising their own children or other family members, may encounter situations far outside their expectations of how children are treated. Thus, there are initial training programs for persons who wish to foster or adopt children, and continuing education in special problems of the individual children in a foster home. States and private agencies that train and certify foster and adoptive parents have extensive curricula and also stringent requirements for those who would care for children. Background checks are done to ensure the prospective parent(s) have an appropriate legal status, with no conviction of crimes against persons. Health standards include safe homes and water supplies, tuberculosis tests for the household, and checks for firearms, medications, and other hazards.

Some of the characteristics seen in successful foster parents are willingness to learn, ability to request and accept help, warmth, acceptance of children and their behavior, a high level of tolerance of frustration, excellent communication skills, good physical and emotional health, and a sense of humor ( Jordan and Rodway 1984). Not only must they provide safety and nurturing for children who have been harmed by their previous situations, but they are also part of the team involved in working with the birth parents to reunite the family. Their foster child's own parents may be resentful of the child's attachment to his foster parents and are often deficient in parenting skills and the ability to perceive and act in their child's best interest. For example, foster children often return from parental visits with sadness, resentment, mixed messages ("My real Mom says I don't have to do what you say!"), and emotional instability to the extent that children may experience physical and emotional regression, such as bedwetting, whining, or clinging behavior. Foster parents must then help the child return to his former equilibrium. If parental rights have been terminated, the foster parents are important workers on the team to ready the child for adoption.

Permanency planning also means keeping children, while out of their birth homes, in the least restrictive environment. A family home is indeed the least restrictive placement, with group homes, residential treatment facilities, and hospital settings, both medical and mental health, more restrictive placements. In order to keep children's out-of-home placements as close to family settings as possible, many foster families have obtained specialized training to care for children with unusual physical and emotional needs. Children with substantial physical and mental disabilities and children with emotional disabilities respond well to family foster homes, where the parents are able to manage their increased needs for physical and medical care—such as a child in a wheelchair or one who requires tube feeding—or therapy sessions, following a behavioral modification regime, or dealing with sexual acting out as examples of increased emotional needs.

Cultural and International Implications

Most of the industrialized nations of the world have formalized arrangements for foster care, although the reasons for implementing out-of-home care may vary widely. Many nations, particularly in war-torn areas, in contrast to the United States, make use of institutionalized care in orphanages, as the most cost-efficient response to many children suddenly needing care. As noted above, kinship care and the use of a wider definition of family (including tribal connections, godparents, and other fictive kin) is common in other cultures. The widespread acceptance of kinship care for African Americans has its roots in the customs coming from Africa with slaves, honed during slavery when parents and children might be arbitrarily separated, and other relatives would assume responsibility if possible. New Zealand initiatives for the care of Maori children have evolved to encompass the separate constructs of extended family and tribe in planning for placement in a child's best interest. In Oceania relatives have a claim to the care of children; in Hawaii grandparents have a stronger traditional claim than parents to raising children, even with parents available and able to care for their children (Hegar and Scannapieco 1999). Thus, other societies have recognized and adopted into their culture mechanisms for keeping children within the family, societal group, or accepted identity subgroup if at all possible.

The question of caring for children outside their parental homes continues, especially in areas where war and migration during civil unrest or drought have again created the problem. International adoption has been one response to situations in these troubled parts of the world in the twenty-first century. Americans and others have adopted children from Bosnia, Ukraine, Russia, and other nations. A response to the Chinese policy of encouraging one-child families, coupled with traditional high value of a son, has led to international adoption of abandoned female children. Regulation and overseeing of homes where these children are fostered and then adopted is of interest to contemporary child welfare.

The AIDS/HIV epidemic may call for a new kind of fostering in countries where the disease is decimating the population. In many areas of Africa, traditional extended family ties have provided for the care of children orphaned by the virus. However, the prevalence of the disease, as it moves to younger and younger age groups, may overwhelm the traditional systems already in place; aging relatives may not be able to care for the many children whose parents are dying. With infection of women in their earlier childbearing years, more infants will likely be born HIV-positive themselves and be orphaned, with no relatives available to provide the traditional care. The solutions to these problems are daunting for nations already overburdened with the expenses of emerging into the world economy as well as the costs of public health initiatives. These dire developing emergencies in the care of children may well engender new initiatives and supranational cooperation in the best interest of coming generations.

See also:Fictive Kinship; Gay Parents; Lesbian Parents; Orphans


encyclopedia of social work. (1995). 19th edition. washington: national association of social workers press.

fahlberg, v. i. (1991). a child's journey through placement. indianapolis: perspectives press.

hegar, r. l., and scannapieco, m., eds. (1999). kinshipfoster care: policy, practice, and research. new york: oxford university press.

jordan, a., and rodway, m. r. (1984). "correlates of effective foster parenting." social work research and abstracts 20:27–31

kluger, m. p.; alexander, g.; and curtis, p. a., eds. (2000). what works in child welfare. washington: cwla press.

pecora, p. j.; whittaker, j. k.; maluccio, a. n.; and barth,r. (2000). the child welfare challenge: policy, practice, research. 2nd edition. hawthorne, ny: aldine.

trattner, w. i. (1999). from poor law to welfare state: ahistory of social welfare in america, 6th edition. new york: the free press.

other resources

jane addams school of social work, university ofchicago. the kinship care practice project. available from

u.s. department of health and human services. nationalclearinghouse on child abuse and neglect information (2000). available from

washington state. fosterparentscope training. available from

elisabeth kenny