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Foster care is full-time substitute care of children outside of their home by people other than their biological, adoptive, or legal guardians. Children are removed from their own homes and placed in foster care in a variety of settings. They may be placed with kinship caregivers, non-relatives, therapeutic or treatment foster care, or in an institution or group home (Franz, Woodward, 2006). Typically, foster children have been removed from their biological parents by governmental authorities. For example, in the United States, the Department of Social Services (DSS) is the government agency in charge of the foster care system. When officials determine that it is necessary to remove a child from his or her home, a county or state agency assumes responsibility for the care of that child and finds an appropriate foster home. Foster homes fulfill an essential social need by providing for the physical health, emotional well-being, and daily care of children who, for various reasons, have been separated from their parents.
There are many reasons children are unable to live at home. In some cases, it may be due to the death, severe physical or mental illness, or incarceration of their biological parents. In addition, children are taken from their parents if they had been considered victims of neglect or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or if their parents have been involved in substance abuse (State of Wisconsin foster parent handbook, 2008). No matter what the reason, a majority of children in foster care will likely experience some of the same challenges and share some of the same feelings. The goal of foster care is to provide children in need of a better home life with a safe and welcoming environment among responsible and caring adults.
History of Foster care
Throughout the history of the united states, providing safe homes to poor and parentless children has dramatically changed with a growing rate of children being abused and neglected. The origins of contemporary American foster care date back to the colonial-era practice of indentureship or “binding out” (Curran, 2004). Following English tradition, families often placed their children with a master who had taught their children a trade. In exchange for the Childs labor, the master would provide the child with the basic necessities in life. Poor families who were unable to provide for their care, their children were auctioned off to families at the lowest bid. Eventually, this practice was imported to the united states, and was the beginning of placing children into homes (National voice of foster parents, 2010).
Although indentured service allowed abuse and exploitation, it was a step ahead from almshouses where children did not learn a trade and were exposed to awful, atrocious surroundings and unpleasant adults. In the late nineteenth century, the practice of foster care became more formalized when the anti-cruelty movement developed, along with the establishment of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC). SPCC agents often removed children from their biological homes due to physical abuse and poverty-related neglect (Curran, 2004).
Charles Loring Brace, a minister and director of the New York Children’s Aid Society, began the free foster care home movement in 1853. His main concern was to provide free homes for the immigrant children that had been sleeping in the streets of New York. He began his plan by advertising in the south and west for families willing to provide free homes for the urban orphaned, half-orphaned, and other poor children (Curran, 2004). Brace believed that those children needed to be removed from their unhappy surroundings and sent away to kinder Christian homes in the country. Brace knew that the greatest need for labor was in the expanding farm country to the west. Also, he believed that America’s Christian farmers would welcome the homeless children, not only give them work, but treat them as their own sons or daughters.
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Many of these placements did not go according to the original plan. Reports indicated that children were drifting from farm to farm. Some ran from their foster homes and went back to New York. Stories of negative allegations on the quality of the children’s treatment concerned Brace. In 1883, he agreed to an independent investigation and found that majority of the children were being abused and neglected. Also, many of the children were treated like slaves, forced to work extensive hours on the farms, and were denied education (United States Foster care system, 2010).
By the twentieth century, America’s vision of childhood had tremendously changed. By 1950, the number of children in foster care exceeded the number of children in orphanages for the first time in US history (Herman, 2007). The foster care movement continued to gain strength and support. Foster parents began to be viewed as a team of professional adults working together to provide the best possible care for children in need. As a result, the emotional needs of children began to take top priority.
During the 1970s, both the number of children entering the foster care system increased, so did their length of stay in care. Lawmakers became concerned that many children were being removed from their homes unnecessarily. Once they entered foster care, inadequate efforts were made to either reunify them with their biological families or place them with adoptive families. Other concerns were about the lack of oversight within the foster care system. To address the concerns, congress enacted the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (Murray & Gesiriech, 2004). The act attempted to reduce the foster care population by emphasizing family preservation and reunification programs, and required state agencies to make “reasonable effort” before removing a child from its home.
Despite some improvement in foster care trends, the number of children in foster care continued to rise dramatically. Between 1986 and 1995, the number of children increased from 280,000 to nearly 500,000, a 76 percent increase. Researchers suggested multiple contributing factors to the rising foster care population such as the economic slowdown, the crack cocaine epidemic, AIDS, and high incarceration rates among women offenders (Murray & Gesiriech, 2004). The rise in the foster care population coupled with socioeconomic gaps continues throughout the foster care system.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). The law lowered the amount of time foster children could remain in foster care before becoming available for adoption. The law was passed to reduce the foster care population and promote permanency for children by encouraging adoption over family preservation efforts. The act sped up the process toward terminating parental rights, which allowed child welfare workers to prepare for family reunification and adoption, and provided states with financial incentives for adoption (Curran, 2004).
Today, half of all children live with non relative foster caregivers, and approximately one-fourth live with relatives, especially grandparents. In 2008, approximately 2,617,580 grandparents across the country had primary responsibility caring for their grandchildren (Child Welfare League of America, 2010). While it is unfortunate that so many children require foster care, it’s satisfying to know that a national system is now in place to meet the needs of children and youth from disadvantaged circumstances. There will always be room for improvement and reform in the foster care system.
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