- Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State by Catherine E. Rymph
At the turn of the twenty-first century, the American foster care system would be unrecognizable to many of its initial champions. The racial contours of foster care evolved over time. What was once a vehicle to support primarily white children in white families whose parents may rely on the safety net of the U.S. welfare state, foster care became a tool of the removal of children of color. The modern foster care system that emerged in the mid-twentieth century symbolized a unique relationship between a publicly funded system and private citizens serving as foster families. Tracing the public policy and history of foster care, Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State by Catherine E. Rymph crafts a comprehensive genealogy of foster care's emergence as part of broader Progressive commitments to child welfare reform in the early twentieth century. She provides a holistic portrait of foster care, featuring the voices of biological parents, foster parents, foster children, and social work professionals in her integration of archival research, government publications, newspapers, legal documents, and other primary and secondary sources.
Rymph discusses how the origins of foster family care are often credited to Charles Loring Brace and his work with the orphan train movement. Yet she critiques this attribution, underscoring how the orphan trains links to histories of indentured servitude as it was assumed the children would contribute to households they would enter as unpaid laborers. This is not to discount foster care's links to [End Page 428] the orphan trains nor to orphanages; however, Rymph suggests that historians ought to also consider the ways in which foster care more closely aligns to informal and formal practices of boarding children that occurred between families with little to no oversight by any agencies or organizations.
Raising Government Children outlines how the foster care system transformed and professionalized itself in the mid-twentieth century from the 1930s to the 1960s, and how this evolution impacts foster care practices today. During the Great Depression, poverty-stricken families turned towards foster care as a method to care for their children. Requesting the placement of their children in foster care was a last resort for parents as they considered out-of-home placement of children as an alternative to orphanages. And, for similar reasons stemming from economic constraints, other families cared for dependent children and sought out opportunities to serve as prospective boarding families. Child welfare advocates and professionals gained federal support as part of New Deal policies and welfare reforms. They believed that providing aid to families would support family preservation efforts and alleviate the need for alternative care arrangements. These early initiatives often focused on supporting white families as children of color and indigenous children experienced a different trajectory.
World War II signaled a shift in how foster care was promoted and understood. This period was marked with contradictions concerning persistent gendered notions of care and family and the increase of women in the wartime workforce. In an effort to alleviate the foster family shortage, foster mothers were framed as patriotic "war workers." This positioning sought to evoke the war effort, "implying that American foster children were themselves casualties of the war" in addition to the European refugee children entering the United States (p. 81).
By the 1950s and 1960s, the contradictions of fostering became more visible because although these families aimed to mimic genetically-related families in lieu of institutional care, these were supposed to be temporary placements and not a better substitute [End Page 429] family than the child's family of origin. Child placement professionals were concerned that women might form unhealthy attachments to the children in their care, and often foster parents who sought to adopt a child found themselves not being considered.
The face of foster care changed by the mid...