Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State

Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State

Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State

Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State

Synopsis

In the 1930s, buoyed by the potential of the New Deal, child welfare reformers hoped to formalize and modernize their methods, partly through professional casework but more importantly through the loving care of temporary, substitute families. Today, however, the foster care system is widely criticized for failing the children and families it is intended to help. How did a vision of dignified services become virtually synonymous with the breakup of poor families and a disparaged form of "welfare" that stigmatizes the women who provide it, the children who receive it, and their families?

Tracing the evolution of the modern American foster care system from its inception in the 1930s through the 1970s, Catherine Rymph argues that deeply gendered, domestic ideals, implicit assumptions about the relative value of poor children, and the complex public/private nature of American welfare provision fueled the cultural resistance to funding maternal and parental care. What emerged was a system of public social provision that was actually subsidized by foster families themselves, most of whom were concentrated toward the socioeconomic lower half, much like the children they served. Analyzing the ideas, debates, and policies surrounding foster care and foster parents' relationship to public welfare, Rymph reveals the framework for the building of the foster care system and draws out its implications for today's child support networks.

Excerpt

In December 2012, the Los Angeles Times ran a moving human- interest story about a young woman named Meredith Kensington. When she had been a child, both of Meredith’s parents had struggled with substance abuse, and she was placed in a foster home. Two younger siblings lived for a time with their grandmother, but Meredith was unable to maintain contact with them once they, too, entered foster care. Meredith recounted her own experiences with foster parents who committed fraud, her appeals to social workers who seemed indifferent, and her fears that her younger siblings might have ended up in homes “as bad as hers had been.” She eventually ran away from her foster home, leaving behind four half- siblings. Two of them ended up in prison; another was homeless. Now at Christmastime, the Los Angeles Times reporter focused on Meredith’s desire to spend the holidays with the younger siblings she had lost track of fifteen years earlier when they “entered the byzantine bureaucracy of the Los Angeles County foster care system.”

Today, we (like that Los Angeles Times reporter) speak of the “foster care system,” a system intended to serve dependent, neglected, and abused children who need to be, at least temporarily, removed from their families of origin. Children are removed, characteristically, under the authority of a local court, but their cases are managed by a local child welfare agency, which places a child in a licensed, out- of- home environment, preferably with a family. Public agencies often contract with private agencies (a number of which are sectarian) to provide and monitor foster family care. Some foster youth also end up in group homes or institutions, typically because they have severe behavioral issues or because, for whatever reason, a suitable foster family is not available. When most people think of foster care, however, they are probably thinking not of group homes or institutions but of family placements — what mid- twentiethcentury experts called “foster family care.”

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