The history of child welfare in the United States can be characterized by a continuous thematic shift between family preservation and child safety. The 1970s saw a number of efforts to reduce children’s time in foster care and expedite paths to permanency. The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) (P.L. 105–89) marked the first time issues related to permanency were explicitly stated in legislation, which was pivotal in changing the landscape of child welfare practice. This law connected safety and permanency by demonstrating how each factor was necessary in achieving overall child well-being. While ASFA made clear that child safety was paramount, it also provided a new way of defining permanency for children and youth in foster care. The law specified that States had to improve the safety of children, promote adoption and other permanent homes for children who needed them, and support families. ASFA also required child protection agencies to provide more timely assessment and intervention services to children and families involved with child welfare. Additionally, ASFA paved the way for the legal sanction of concurrent planning (simultaneously identifying and working on a secondary goal, such as guardianship, with a relative) by requiring that agencies make reasonable efforts to find permanent families for children in foster care should reunification fail.
In 2008, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (P.L. 110–351) amended the Social Security Act to improve outcomes for children in foster care, connect and support relative caregivers, and offer incentives for adoption. Fostering Connections enhanced services for youth aging out of care and created new programs to help children and youth in or at risk of entering foster care to reconnect with family members. The act also provided the opportunity for federally recognized Indian Tribes, Tribal organizations, and Tribal consortia—for the first time in history—to directly operate title IV-E programs.
Child welfare permanency practice and related policies continue to evolve as agencies, professionals, families, and policymakers strive to achieve a balance that keeps children safe, preferably in their own homes. The following resources summarize the history of foster care and permanency in the United States along with important legislative efforts that have been put forth over the past few decades.
A Brief History of Foster Care in the United States
CASA of Travis County
Provides a history of foster care in the United States and discusses how foster care has changed from the orphan trains of the 1830s through today.
Children's Bureau Fact Sheet: Child and Family Services Reviews (PDF - 181 KB)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau (2015)
Outlines the history of the Child and Family Services Reviews, which allow the Children's Bureau to determine what is happening to children and families and assist States in enhancing their capacity to serve families and children.
Child Welfare Legislative History
U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means (2011)
Offers historical data and a timeline of legislation that impacted the child welfare system from the early 1900s until today. The document highlights how the Children's Bureau helped shape the original Social Security Act and ASFA.
Foster Care: A History
Explores the history of foster care in the United States and examines how the concept of permanency has expanded since the 1970s when efforts were first made to expedite the path to permanent homes for children and youth.
Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act
North American Council on Adoptable Children (2017)
Provides a review of the Federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 and summarizes major provisions of the law.
Key U.S. Child Welfare Laws
North American Council on Adoptable Children (2020)
Summarizes key Federal laws that affect children in foster care and those who are adopted from the child welfare system.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau
Lists Federal child welfare legislation that has played a role ensuring safety, permanency, and well-being for children and youth.
Child Welfare Information Gateway
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