In the United States, by the 19th century, many laws were enacted that systemized Poor Law traditions originating from the UK, allowing children to be indentured to protect them from neglect or remove them from the streets.
The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) was founded by Charles Loring Brace who believed orphans, “half-orphans” (children with one parent instead of two), and children whose parents were coerced into relinquishing their children could find a better life with Protestant families. Starting in 1884, the CAS sent children away on “orphan trains” which transported the children to small towns and rural areas where families could adopt and raise these children. CAS represents an early example of child welfare services being utilized to “save” children by relocating them from ethnic or racial minority families and communities, and assimilating them into majority families and communities. The removal of indigenous children from their families and communities during the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, as well as their placement in boarding schools where they were prohibited from engaging in their cultural practices, serves as a later example of the use of child welfare services akin to what Brace and the CAS utilized.
The origin of widespread media attention and public concern over the rampant issue of child maltreatment is generally traced to the case of Mary Ellen Wilson, a young girl living in New York City. In 1874, due to intervention by Henry Bergh, the leader of the New York chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NYSPCA), Mary Ellen Wilson was removed from the home of her abusive caregivers. After this intervention, Bergh and other individuals with the same goal of combating child abuse and neglect established the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC).
The first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children was called largely in response to rising concerns about the institutional placement of children, marking a high point in the Progressive Era. At this conference, the recommendation was made that measures should be taken to prevent the relocation of children from their homes and to place them with families instead of in institutions.
The U.S. Children’s Bureau, the first department of the federal government devoted to the welfare of children, was created in 1912 in response to the recommendations of the 1909 White House Conference. The first Assignment given by the president was to “investigate and report… upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people.”
The first major update to the Children’s Bureau would be the signing of The Social Security Act By President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. Title V of The SSA would grant the Bureau responsibility for administering three main children’s programs: maternal and child health services, medical care for crippled children, and child welfare services in addition to its original task of research and report. The Second Major update came in 1946 with the transfer of the Children’s Bureau from the Labor Department to the Social Security Administration within the Federal Security Agency.
Changes were made to Title V of the Social Security Act including authorising Federal matching funds to States on behalf of children in foster care. In return, States were required to develop a plan for each child in foster care, with periodic reviews of the necessity for care, and provide services to expedite children’s safe return home.
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was signed alongside the creation of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (now known as the Office on Child Abuse and Neglect) within the Children’s Bureau.
Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed by congress to protect the best interests of children and promote the stability and security of Native Tribes and Native families. A study by the Association on American Indian Affairs from 1976 showed that twenty-five to thirty-five percent of Native children were being removed from their homes by State courts and welfare agencies. Eighty-five percent of these were moved to non-Native placements, resulting in lost connections between children and their communities. Jurisdiction was granted by the ICWA to the child’s Tribe in regards to child custody and adoption matters involving them.
The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, signed by President Carter, reflected a new Federal focus on permanence for children. Among its mandates was the first Federal adoption assistance program for children with special needs and for States to make “reasonable efforts” to prevent foster care placement or to return children to their home quickly. The Act gave funds per state for health and education costs as well as payments for foster caregivers to receive food, shelter, and clothing ensuring the safety of children’s basic human needs.
The first Independent Living Program was established in response to statistics showing many youth ageing out of foster care (i.e. turning eighteen) with little or no preparation and/or support. Congress would require that each state create initiatives to prepare foster children ages 16 or over for a more successful adulthood, with support from the Children’s Bureau.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) made the most significant changes to the child welfare provisions since they had been established in their current form in 1980. ASFA principally addressed three general perceptions about the current child welfare system: 1) Children continued to remain too long in foster care; 2) the child welfare system was biased toward family preservation at the expense of children’s safety and well-being; and 3) inadequate attention and resources were devoted to adoption as a permanent placement option for abused and neglected children.
Key provisions of ASFA were designed to: 1) ensure that child safety, permanency, and well-being are of paramount concern in any child welfare decision; 2) encourage states to expedite permanency decisions for children in foster care; 3) promote and increase the number of adoptions, particularly through a new adoption incentive payment program; 4) establish performance standards and a state accountability system, whereby states face financial penalties for failure to demonstrate improvements in child outcomes; and 5) encourage states to test innovative approaches to delivering child welfare services, by expanding the existing waiver program.
The Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 (Public Law 106-169) replaced the Independent Living Program with the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP). In addition to increasing funding, CFCIP expanded the existing independent living program to include services for both adolescents making the transition from foster care to self-sufficiency and former foster youth up to age 21. Authorized services included financial and housing assistance, and counseling and other support services needed to help foster youth successfully transition to independence. In addition, CFCIP gave states the option to provide continuing Medicaid coverage to certain former foster youth.
The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was Established in 2008 and amended the Social Security Act to improve outcomes for children in foster care, connect and support relative caregivers, and offer incentives for adoption. It also provided, for the first time, the opportunity for federally recognized Native Tribes, Tribal organisations, and Tribal consortia to directly manage a title IV-E program.
Children's Bureau Timeline - Child Welfare Information Gateway
Child Welfare: History and Policy | Encyclopedia of Social Work
Timeline of Major Federal Legislation Concerned with Child Protection, Child Welfare, and Adoption
Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)