Søland on Rymph, 'Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State'

Catherine E. Rymph
Birgitte Søland

Catherine E. Rymph. Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. xiv + 252 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-3564-4; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3563-7.

Reviewed by Birgitte Søland (The Ohio State University) Published on H-FedHist (August, 2018) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51555

In the winter of 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt convened the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. Attended by more than two hundred leading social reformers and child welfare advocates, the conference addressed existing practices and articulated new ideals and principles for how best to care for orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children. While the nineteenth century had witnessed the establishment of literally thousands of orphanages around the country, the conference attendees were practically unanimous in their condemnation of institutional care. They declared orphanages, while slightly better than the old almshouses, to be unsuitable environments for raising children, an outmoded way of addressing a social problem. Declaring “home life ... the highest and finest product of civilization,” they promoted foster care as a preferable alternative, agreeing that “children who ... must be removed from their own homes or have no homes ... should be cared for in families whenever practicable."[1] Throughout the twentieth century, this would remain the consensus among child welfare professionals and the principle that guided American child welfare policy.

Even though millions of Americans, including children placed in foster care, their biological families, and foster care providers, have been affected by this policy, scholars have done remarkably little to investigate the history of foster care. Catherine E. Rymph’s study therefore provides a much-needed account of what she calls “this perplexing form of social provision” (p. 5). Without defending or vilifying a system that has been widely criticized for failing the children and families it is intended to help, Rymph offers a nuanced, thoughtful analysis of the interactions among law, policy, elite professionals, social workers in the field, and families themselves. Though the author describes her work as “a social history of public policy” (p. 4), her focus is primarily on the ideas and debates that have surrounded the foster care system from the 1930s, when the Social Security Act first established the basic federal programs of the American welfare state, to the 1970s, by which point it had become clear that the nurturing system of temporary foster care that New Deal reformers had envisioned had failed to materialize.

As Rymph points out, the practice of placing dependent children, in other words, children unable to depend on their biological parents for care, in the homes of others has a history that goes back much further than the 1930s. Across the centuries, desperate parents resorted to placing children they could not care for in the homes of family, friends, neighbors, or even strangers. In the United States, organizational efforts to solve the problem of orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children originated in the nineteenth century. As an alternative to institutional care, mid-nineteenth-century philanthropic “child savers,” such as Charles Loring Brace, initiated the orphan train movement, which in the second half of the nineteenth century transported hundreds of thousands of children from crowded East Coast cities to rural areas in the Midwest. Children on the orphan trains were placed with families, some of whom longed for a child to care for while others primarily sought a pair of hands to help out on the farm.[2]

In the decades around the turn of the twentieth century, the emergence of a new class of professional experts and social workers led to renewed concern about child welfare. Collectively, they challenged the reliance on philanthropic initiatives, emphasizing instead the positive role that government could play in protecting dependent children. In 1912, this prompted Congress to establish the U.S. Children’s Bureau, marking the first political acknowledgment of federal responsibility for children. Along with the Child Welfare League of America, founded in 1920, the Children’s Bureau would play critical roles both in professionalizing the field of child placement and in pushing for public funding for initiatives aimed at promoting the safety and well-being of children.

For all the hardships that the Great Depression brought to bear on American families, it also led to the development of a nascent welfare state. According to Rymph, such New Deal programs as Aid to Dependent Children and federal unemployment insurance alleviated the poverty of many families, leading child welfare professionals to the optimistic conclusion that public assistance would ultimately bring an end to the economic insecurity that ended up separating many children from their families. In the meantime, children might be placed temporarily in foster families, who would be carefully selected, trained, and supervised by professional social workers. Stressing the voluntary nature of child welfare services, experts hoped to work constructively with birth parents to provide a range of services, of which foster care was just one option, with the ultimate goal of reuniting struggling parents and their children.

While the coming of World War II essentially eliminated the unemployment crisis in the United States and created new opportunities, it also produced serious challenges for many American families. Mobilization, mass migration, and the resulting housing shortages created new forms of family disruption, and the absence of male wage earners left many women in search of employment. For married women with young children, this also meant finding someone to care for their offspring, prompting a day care crisis. Without sufficient infrastructure to accommodate the needs for child care, some mothers sought foster placement for their children, triggering a need that far outstripped the supply of available foster homes. In the attempt to recruit more foster families, placement agencies ran publicity campaigns that presented foster mothers as patriotic war workers and described foster care as “a war job for you in your own home” (p. 82).  Casting children in need of foster care as “war orphans,” child welfare professionals sought to appeal to the empathy of ordinary Americans in the hope that they would open their homes to dependent children.

In the postwar years, such seemingly indiscriminate recruitment of foster families would no longer be tolerated. As psychology and psychiatry gained prominence in professional social work training in the 1950s, professional scrutiny of foster families intensified. A steady income and a stable home no longer constituted sufficient grounds for approval of prospective foster families; their mental fitness for the job proved equally important. Especially the motives and behavior of foster mothers were increasingly examined. Because the goal remained the return of children to their families of origin, emotional attachment on the part of foster mothers to the children they cared for was frowned upon. While foster mothers were supposed to be motivated by an inherent maternal love (rather than the remuneration that accompanied foster care placements), child care professionals worried about unconscientious motives on the part of foster mothers, fearing underlying pathological and egotistical motives in their desire to help children, such as the “emotional need to ‘cuddle a child’” (p. 101). The role and disposition of foster fathers, hitherto shadowy figures largely ignored by child care professionals, also received new attention. In the early twentieth century, many widows and single women had served as foster parents, but by the 1950s most social workers, strongly influenced by Freudian theories, deemed the presence of a (foster) father critical to healthy child development. Securely masculine but not authoritarian, he was expected to be an engaged presence in the home in order to prevent especially boys from becoming weak and passive. Much to the distress of child welfare professionals, many foster families, particularly working-class and African American families, failed to live up to these expectations, leaving them, as Rymph acerbically notes, “in the difficult position of expecting a great deal from people of whom they actually thought very little” (p. 112).

The new importance of child psychology as the intellectual underpinning of social work also had a profound impact on the ways in which child welfare advocates thought about the children they served. In what is perhaps the most compelling section of the book, Rymph examines how practically all foster children in the course of the 1950s came to be understood as “damaged goods.” According to child welfare professionals, postwar children generally came into care not due to poverty, illness, or the absence of their biological parents but because of family pathology that produced deep emotional and behavioral problems in children born into such troubled households. Consequently, foster care was recast as a “rehabilitative practice” rather than the means of providing dependent children with a temporary home (p. 93).

The new “pathological” families from which foster children came were poor, though child welfare professionals suggested that it was their pathology, rather than their poverty, that led to child placement. They were also increasingly African American. By the early 1960s, the number of children of color in foster care surpassed their proportion in the general population. Because foster care since the 1930s had been seen as a “service” primarily assisting white families, and due to the failure of placement agencies to recruit actively families of color as foster care providers, combined with the practice of only placing children in homes where the foster parents were of the same race and religion of the child, child care professionals found themselves with a host of black and brown children soon pegged as “hard-to-place” children. Already in the 1950s, civil rights advocates had identified the lack of foster care services, especially for black children, as a problem of discrimination in need of remedy, and the National Urban League began calling for efforts to secure more foster homes for black children. In the end, child welfare professionals would seek to ameliorate this problem by calling for increased compensation for foster families for the demanding work they performed. Ultimately, this would prove a difficult argument to sell not only to politicians but also to the public who struggled to come to terms with the concept of care work as a paid task.

In the 1960s, federal funds were gradually made available for foster care, yet federal funding was allocated in ways that, according to Rymph, made the system “more punitive and coercive” (p. 157). From its beginnings in the nineteenth century, foster care had been perceived as assistance to the poor. As foster care programs began to receive more public funds in the mid-twentieth century, children in foster care became known as “government” or “welfare” children, even though child welfare professionals never envisioned foster care as a welfare program for impoverished children. In the 1930s, child welfare advocates had predicted that New Deal family security programs would reduce poverty so significantly that foster care would become merely one of many child welfare services for families suffering temporary setbacks. Yet, when Congress finally authorized federal funds for foster care, the funds were released not through child welfare programs but through the public assistance stream, and children’s eligibility for foster care would be linked to their eligibility for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), tying them directly to what would become increasingly unpopular poverty programs.

Raising Government Children is indispensable reading for anyone interested in the history of the American welfare state. It is equally relevant for historians of children and childhood in the twentieth century. Yet scholars with particular interest in the experiences of children placed in foster care will probably be disappointed. Although the foster care system was devoted to the protection of children’s interests and their welfare, Rymph notes the irony that the voices of the children themselves are practically absent in the historical source material, and on the few occasions that their perspectives do surface, they are almost invariably mediated through adults. Our knowledge about experiences of foster care, therefore, remains dependent on memoirs written years, sometimes decades, later. Moreover, the publication of such memoirs has often been motivated by the desire to reveal the ways in which the system failed children, highlighting the adversity, even cruelty, that writers suffered while in foster care.[3] Surely, abuses and neglect ought to be disclosed, but for a fuller understanding of the complicated emotional realities of growing up in foster care, we need to investigate a broader array of experiences. Given her deep knowledge of the foster care system and her thoughtful engagement with the topic, one wishes that Rymph might take on the project of uncovering children’s experiences next. In the meantime, she has furnished us with an insightful, first-rate study of the history of foster care as a welfare program.


[1]. Proceedings of the Conference on the Care of Dependent Children (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1909), 6-10.

[2]. For accounts of the orphan train movement, see Stephen O’Connor, Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Marilyn Irvin Holt, The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992); and Tom Riley, The Orphan Trains (New York: LGT Press, 2004).

[3]. See, for example, Ashley Rhodes-Courter, Three Little Words: A Memoir (New York: Atheneum, 2008); Marquis Williams, Beating the System: My Life in Foster Care (self-pub., 2017); Theresa Cameron, Foster Care Odyssey: A Black Girl’s Story (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002); Kailamai Hansen, Out of the Darkness (self-pub., 2015); John William Tuohy, No Time to Say Goodbye: A Memoir of a Life in Foster Care (self-pub., 2015); Georgette Todd, Foster Girl, A Memoir (self-pub., 2013); and George Duvall with Derek D. Humfleet, Dead or in Prison: My Journey through Foster Care (self-pub., 2014).

Citation: Birgitte Søland. Review of Rymph, Catherine E., Raising Government Children: A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51555

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.