Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

This site is archival. Please visit for up-to-date content.

MU scholar traces the roots and stigma of foster care in America

November 7th, 2017

Story Contact: Jeff Sossamon, 573-882-3346,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – In the 1930s, child welfare reformers bolstered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal looked to reform their methods through the support of loving households and temporary families. Now, this idealistic vision of foster care has come into question. Changing perceptions of orphans reflect fluctuating societal attitudes about caring for children who cannot take care of themselves. Catherine Rymph, an associate professor of history at MU, has written a book examining the modern history of foster care in the United States and the stigma associated with the system.

“Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State” traces the evolution of the modern American foster care system from its inception in the 1930s through the 1970s. Before the 1930s, Rymph says foster care was a complicated mix of public and private—mostly religious-based—systems. Today, the system is still a blend of public and private. However, the 1930s saw the development of the skeleton of the modern public system as states began to create state departments of child welfare, spurred on by federal funds available through the new Social Security Act. Rymph says social workers in the mid-20th century were idealistic—hoping to turn foster care into a therapeutic service available to all.

“There has always been a problem of caring for children who can’t take care of themselves, either because their parents die or become ill, or one parent dies and the other parent can’t work and care for the kids at the same time, or simply because the family is too poor,” Rymph said. “Numerous systems over time have dealt with this, from indentured servitude to orphanages to workhouses. In the late 19th century, ‘orphan trains’ took homeless street children out west and placed them with farm families. Sometimes, families would pay a neighbor to board some of their children.”

Rymph says child welfare reformers thought the new safety net programs of the New Deal would keep families out of poverty and thereby eliminate the need for foster care. New Deal programs such as unemployment insurance and Aid to Dependent Children were designed to enable families to raise children at home. By the 1950s, Rymph says child welfare reformers were trying to solve the mystery of why foster care caseloads were continuing to climb. They theorized the rise in foster care was due to family problems, but Rymph says what they overlooked was that poverty was still the main determinant.

“I found that the foster care system we’ve ended up with is not at all what reformers envisioned in the 1930s,” Rymph said. “Since its inception, the foster care system has become synonymous with a scorned view of welfare and the foster parents who provide it. It’s closely linked to poverty, racial minorities are disproportionately in foster care, and there are numerous bad outcomes for kids in foster care. This is not what the reformers thought they were creating, and that has to do with the fact that the family support systems they thought would make foster care obsolete have never been as robust as they need to be.”

Rymph says she hopes her book serves as a corrective to the negative stereotypes society seems to have about every part of the system—negative views of birth parents who can’t take care of their children, negative views of greedy foster parents who cycle through children for money, negative views of foster children themselves and negative views of social workers.

“What I try to do in this book is to take a sympathetic view on all of those perspectives,” Rymph says. “I really try to look at how things appear from multiple points of view and that they are all working within an impossible system.”

“Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State” recently was published by The University of North Carolina Press.

Editor’s Note: For more on the story, please see Foster Care in America