It has been the custom of many societies and times for the extended family, or designated relationship kin such as godparents or the child's mother's brothers, to take in orphaned children. In the Old Testament the law requiring a man to marry his brother's widow served to keep children in the home of kin. The story of Moses, abandoned and subsequently found and fostered by the daughter of Pharaoh, is a familiar one, the prototype of many hero stories in which a significant individual was raised by a nonrelative. Medieval Europe made use of monasteries and convents to care for children placed there by their families as a career choice, as a source of education for children of upper-class families, and also to care for a certain number of orphans who had no provision for their upkeep. Following the Reformation, when religious communities were scattered, laws such as the Poor Laws of 1501 in England required communities to make provision for orphans and other destitute persons. Children old enough to be apprenticed or placed to learn a trade (with a farmer, blacksmith, or in domestic service for a girl, for example) were usually dealt with in that manner; younger children or those with a handicap were housed at the Poor Farm or other facility, with no special arrangements made for their education or supervision.
In the early years of the United States, as in Europe and England, this responsibility for a town or county to provide for orphans without resources generally was adhered to and developed in local law. Families, of course, continued to care for their young relatives whose parents were dead or incapacitated, but those without family resources were considered the responsibility of the local authorities, as localities became settled and government developed. Municipalities continued to place older children in apprenticeships, in domestic work, or with families who needed workers on the farm.
During the nineteenth century, a movement to institutionalize and centralize the care of dependent children led to the development of orphanages. Other special populations were also institutionalized at this period—for example, those with mental handicaps and prisoners. Institutions for the hearing- and sight-impaired also developed, as a more efficient and humane way of dealing with this population, incorporating some form of training or education. Following the Civil War, the United States looked to other ways to care for children, as institutionalization proved to be no protection against mishandling and poor outcomes. As mentioned above, efforts to place children in apprenticeships, teaching them a trade, were an approved solution offered by governmental bodies in providing for orphaned or unsupervised children. As industrialization took over the eastern part of the United States, with its more highly trained workforce, there were fewer agricultural and untrained labor jobs available, leading to a concern that children who grew up in orphanages would turn to crime. Another fear at this point was the belief that children of immigrants, particularly from southern and eastern Europe, were somehow by their heritage less likely to have an appropriate work ethic, high personal standards of moral behavior, and resistance to various forms of unlawful life, such as robbery, alcohol use, and prostitution. Charles Loring Brace, a young minister in New York City, appalled by the living conditions of children in the tenements, formed the Children's Aid Society in 1853 to begin modern foster care. He made various efforts to help children in the urban environment—shelters, training programs, and savings banks. However, he felt strongly that children removed from the unsanitary and morally compromised environment of city life to rural life in the West would have a better chance to grow up physically and mentally healthy, with a future in that part of the country where agriculture, construction, and all the other activities of the westward movement would provide a decent and lawabiding living. Brace's Orphan Trains (and others following the Children's Aid Society model, which ran until 1929) transported thousands of children to the Midwest and West. His efforts placed children in family homes as the ideal placement for them and were the beginning of foster care as it is now understood.
Even after the advantages of placement in family homes were generally accepted, it was not until the 1980s that child psychology and developmental information began to change the philosophy behind foster homes to consider needs of children beyond their physical care, health, and housing. In 1980 the federal government passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, which spoke to these negative issues of the casual moving of children from home to home and the lack of effort made to prevent the initial removal from the birth family. Although children's physical and medical needs were met, their education provided, and their safety from neglect and abuse assured, they tended to drift in foster care, with few efforts to reunite them with their birth family or initiate efforts towards remediation of the conditions that caused their removal. The uncertainty of being permanently a foster child, having no official determination of length of stay, and no connection with his or her birth family began to be seen as emotionally troubling as the traumatic occurrence that determined the child's entrance into foster care. The term permanency planning describes these initiatives to coordinate court efforts, set up rehabilitation services for parents who had lost care of their children, and to review children's situations within the agency in a timely manner to determine whether the services met the needs of both parents and children and helped them reunite if possible. Reunification became the primary permanency planning goal for a child, with relative placement or timely adoption being a secondary goal to give a child a permanent home.
With the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997, efforts to place children with family members, either short term or long term, spoke to the growing understanding of the need for identification with one's own family. Efforts to encourage extended or fictive family to care for children brought a new term, kinship care, to the fore. From the moment that removal from the birth parent is considered, child welfare workers begin the search for individuals related to the child by blood, by marriage, or by family custom (fictive kin), who might be a resource for the child. The rationale for kinship placement is that it maintains the connection with the child's extended family and its history and culture, encourages possible ease and naturalness of contact with birth parents, and continues the child's care with as little upset or change as possible. Kinship care also employs the oldest solution for children who cannot be cared for by birth parents—placement with family members. In many cultures the extended family has always had this responsibility, and Americans of Hispanic, Native American, and African American background see kinship care as very much in their cultural tradition.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act also mandated a shortened time in care for children, by setting a calendar for the court to make a decision about the permanent placement of a child— reunification with the parent from whom they were removed, permanent placement with a family member, or termination of parental rights and adoption—by one year from the day a child was removed from his birth home or primary caretaker. Services to facilitate reunification were to be extended very promptly to the birth parents to help changes occur, ensuring that the child could safely be returned to the parental home. And finally, reviews were to take place in a timely manner so that cooperation with the plan of service could be evaluated, and every possible avenue of assistance to the family might be effected.