A Feature, Not a Bug: The Foster System's History of Othering – Next100
Commentary   Education + Early Years

A Feature, Not a Bug: The Foster System’s History of Othering

Low-income children and families of color are overrepresented in our nation’s child welfare and foster systems. A brief look at the early history of these systems illustrates that this overrepresentation has less to do with issues of neglect and maltreatment than it does with how we address—or fail to address—economic inequality.

Many assume that the child welfare system in the United States is keeping our nation’s most vulnerable children safe from harm and that those children, and families, are much better off because of the state’s intervention. While it is true that children who are in situations where they may be at risk of, or have experienced, abuse are likely safer when the state gets involved, more than half of the children and families who interact with the child welfare system enter the system due to their race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status—not abuse. And, once these children enter the system, their outcomes and experiences are extremely troubling. There’s a difference between who we think the system is helping and the large number of children and youth who are being harmed by the very system that was supposed to protect them. I argue that the foundation of the system itself is the source of the problem: it never truly centered the needs of the children and families who become ensnared by it.

I’ve worked in roles within and connected to the child welfare system for seven years, first as an attorney for New York City’s child welfare agency and then as an education attorney working with children and families in the city’s child welfare and foster systems. I worked with countless folks who looked like me and had families like mine—Black and brown families, most of whom were low-income. What I saw reflected the national reality: One in seventeen children in the United States will be placed in the foster system sometime between birth and age 18. Even more alarming, 1 in 9 Black children and 1 in 7 Native children will enter the foster system between birth and age 18. As of September 2020, there were over 400,000 children in the foster system nationwide—that’s roughly the size of Boston’s and Chicago’s school districts combined. Nationwide, children of color are severely overrepresented in the foster system: Black children make up 14 percent of the nation’s population, but 23 percent of children and youth in the foster system. Similarly, Native children make up just 1 percent of our population but are represented in the foster system at twice that rate. In 2019, Latinx children and youth were overrepresented in the foster system in eleven states. The same source indicates that in Connecticut, for example, Latinx children accounted for just 25 percent of the population, but 34 percent of the children and youth in the foster system.

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How have we ended up with these profoundly disproportionate numbers? Our answer lies with a look at the most common route for entrance into the system. Most children and youth who enter the foster system nationally do so based on allegations of “neglect.” For example, in the last year, 64 percent of children and youth who entered the system did so on the grounds of neglect. But there are some familiar trends behind these allegations that suggest that there may be more to the picture than might initially meet the eye. Many of these children and youth are from low-income families, low-income families are disproportionately Black, Native, and Latinx: in 2019, about 31 percent of Black children, 30 percent of Native children, and 23 percent of Latinx children lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty line. Research has shown that socioeconomic status is the highest predictor of child maltreatment, including neglect. At the same time, child welfare officials often conflate poverty, and its pernicious effects on families and children, with neglect, instead of fully contextualizing poverty’s far-reaching impact on a parent’s ability to meet their child’s needs. For the most part, many people don’t consider economic insecurity as an important antecedent when thinking about child welfare: there’s a misconception that many of the children who enter the system have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse. In reality, children with those devastating experiences made up about 17 percent of children who entered the foster system in the last year.

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These statistics are even more troubling when one learns that children and youth tend to have overwhelmingly negative experiences and outcomes in the foster system. For example, one study in the early 2000s showed that they have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than war veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. Those impacted by the foster system also tend to have higher rates of incarceration: The Kansas City Star surveyed 6,000 people who were incarcerated in twelve states and found that 1 in 4 had been involved in the foster system. Many students in the foster system have poor educational outcomes too: in New York State in 2020, students in the foster system had a four-year high school graduation rate of just 47 percent as compared to their non-foster system impacted counterparts, who had a four-year graduation rate of 84 percent.

What we’re starting to uncover here is a very disturbing portrait of the foster system in the United States. There are, and have been, multiple generations of children of color growing up in a system that overwhelmingly penalizes them by separating them from their families on the grounds not of abuse or neglect, but of socioeconomic status, and then further traumatizes them by failing to support them once they’re in the state’s care. Andrew Billingsley and Jeanne M. Giovannoni made a salient point in their 1972 book, Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare,“[t]he history of American child welfare shows that to be a child and poor is to be doubly disadvantaged; to be a child and poor and Black is truly triple jeopardy.” Almost fifty years later, this statement still rings true. Black children and families are still disproportionately impacted by the weight of involvement in the family regulation system. More Black children than White children, proportionately, live below the federal poverty line, are placed in the foster system, and exposed to potentially devastating life experiences and outcomes. Black children’s triple jeopardy puts many of them at an unfair and increased risk of harm which can be traced back to the very beginnings of the system.

In this commentary, I survey the history of the foster system to demonstrate that this disheartening state of affairs is not a bug: it’s a feature. The system functions as designed, anchored in decades, and even centuries, of systemic targeting of low-income families and families of color. The issues are at a system level. I have worked alongside countless advocates, within and outside of the system, many of whom have dedicated their life’s work to improving outcomes for children and families. However, the very foundation on which the system itself stands is problematic, and too often, advocates can only ameliorate the symptoms of much larger and deeply-rooted ills. The child welfare system has historically and disproportionately “othered” certain types of children and families and has long failed to prioritize keeping families together or to address the root causes of poverty.

The child welfare system has historically and disproportionately “othered” certain types of children and families and has long failed to prioritize keeping families together or to address the root causes of poverty.

A brief note on language. Throughout this commentary, I often use the term “foster system” to describe the foster care system, drawing on the work of Rise, a parent-led advocacy group that supports parents involved in the child welfare system. Rise has advocated for the use of the term foster system instead of foster care because, “[t]here is nothing caring about [the foster care system].”

This commentary is organized as follows: first, I’ll define the foster system; second, I’ll walk through the early historical context of how the United States has regulated poor, Black, Native, and immigrant children and families, and how those early decisions contributed to the system we have today.

What is the foster system?

The foster system is part of the larger “family regulation system,” usually known as the child welfare system or child protective services, which aims to protect children from maltreatment, abuse, and neglect. This system operates at the state and local levels with funding and oversight from the federal government. The term “family regulation system” is a more apt description of a system which, so often, surveils and regulates parenting and which often fails to address the root causes of a family’s challenges, like economic insecurity. In addition to the foster system, the family regulation system includes an investigative arm, which addresses alleged instances of child maltreatment, and a preventive services arm, which provides social services to families in need.

Families may interact with the family regulation system voluntarily or involuntarily. A voluntary interaction with the system can include a family seeking preventive services for help with accessing safety-net programs or mental health supports. Voluntary interaction can also take the form of a parent seeking help to care for a child with significant needs. An involuntary interaction can be one that is precipitated by someone calling a state children and family services office alleging an instance of maltreatment by a parent or caregiver. Both interactions carry a risk for the child involved to enter the foster system. Involuntary interactions can lead to a child’s placement in the foster system if the state believes that a child has been abused or neglected. Voluntary interactions can lead to a child’s placement in the foster system as well, including scenarios where that wasn’t the parents’ intention when reaching out to the state. Increased surveillance of parents and children creates opportunities for the state to evaluate, analyze, and make abuse or neglect determinations about families even though many of them are already in difficult situations as evidenced by their need for services.

The foster system is a program by which children and youth are placed in what is, in theory, temporary out-of-home care until they are returned to their parents or caregivers, placed with relatives, adopted, or transitioned to independent living. Out-of-home placements vary in type: they can be with foster families (strangers or relatives), directly with relatives (without any financial support from the state), in group homes, or in institutional settings, such as residential treatment facilities for youth with mental and behavioral health needs.

The Others

In the United States, the belief that individual grit and determination are keys to a successful life—that anyone can make it if they try hard enough—is a pervasive idea that is embedded in our systems and policies. The family regulation system is no exception to this rule. The entire system is built around perceived parental or family failures to support children, when in reality, so many of the reasons children are identified as neglected are based on systemic failures, and are beyond any one family’s control. The norm of reliance on individual abilities and responsibility effectively shifts the burden of addressing these issues from the state to the individual.

This shift of responsibility is part of a process of “othering.” Othering happens when one group creates distance between themselves and another group based on value-judgements about perceived traits. These value judgments can be based on racial, economic, or cultural characteristics. For example, one group may ascribe certain ideas around a person or group’s ability to effectively raise their children if they are of a certain race or socioeconomic status. So, any problem that person has raising their children is attributed to their characteristics, and not to larger societal issues. Othering makes it possible to make systemic or situational issues pathological, attributing personal responsibility for untenable or difficult life circumstances.

Othering makes it possible to make systemic or situational issues pathological, attributing personal responsibility for untenable or difficult life circumstances.

This othering is alive and well in our foster system today, where we see neglect, and often poverty, as a leading cause of foster system involvement. Through this lens of othering, economic insecurity itself, and its ills, are viewed as an issue with the parent or caregiver and their ability to care for their child, and therefore make it necessary to remove their children from their homes and place them in a different one. As a result, low-income families and families of color, who are the most frequently othered in a negative way, become more susceptible to entanglement in the family regulation system—because of how they’re perceived, and not because of their own faults or shortcomings. This is not new: as we will see in the next section, the early history of the foster system shows that many groups of children and families have been othered over time in many ways. Children from low-income families, White immigrant children, and children of color have all been othered throughout history, their home lives altered as society pathologized them and their parents.

The History of “Supporting” Low-Income Children

The interplay between socioeconomic status and the foster system predates the founding of the nation. Beginning during the colonial period, people believed in public responsibility for the poor, which drew on English Poor Laws. Aid was provided primarily through indentured work and almshouses. Many poor children were sent to the new colonies as indentured servants, providing cheap labor. They worked to earn their keep in exchange for room and board. Almshouses were awful institutions that housed all who were low-income without much care or support, including children who had been orphaned and whose parents were unable to support them. A third form of support—through direct aid to those in need, what would be considered welfare today—wouldn’t come into play until the twentieth century. Thus even before the formation of the United States, we had a practice of separating low-income children from their families, under the guise of caring for them, but without actually ever centering and meeting their or their family’s needs.

In the early nineteenth century, almshouses and indenturing gave way to orphanages, which were created to provide more specialized care for children. Orphanages were mostly private, and typically had religious affiliations. In addition to caring for children without parents, orphanages also housed children who came from poor families or families who weren’t able to care for their children due to parent or caregiver illness or death. They were also overwhelmingly restricted to White children; many excluded Black children. In fact, from the early seventeenth century through the mid-nineteenth century, the vast majority of Black children in this country were enslaved, othered to the greatest degree—they were considered property. The authors of Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare note that due to slavery, the child welfare system developed without concern for most Black children, resulting in an inherently racist system that never centered the needs of Black children and families. The exclusion of Black children from many orphanages is just one example of their point.

As orphanages were becoming the primary place of care for children in need, another movement cropped up alongside it, the Orphan Train movement, which began in the mid-nineteenth century and spanned seventy years. The Orphan Train Movement sent over 250,000 children, mostly Irish, Catholic, immigrant, and poor, from East Coast urban centers to Protestant families in the Midwest. As was the case for many in orphanages, many of the children boarding these trains and being sent to new families were not technically orphans, but were from low-income or “undesirable” families. Proponents of the orphan trains, who were typically wealthy White Protestants, believed children reared in these families would become a criminal underclass if they remained in their urban centers; they believed these children would fare better in rural, non-immigrant, Protestant families. These families were supposed to care for the children, establishing a family relationship, but some used them as farm workers and treated them poorly. Children’s relationships with their parents and families of origin were also severed; they were adopted by their new families, even though many of them already had parents and families of their own.

Yet another way that care was provided for low-income children was through the practice of “boarding out,” where parents paid another person to care for their child. These arrangements began as temporary and informal, with parents utilizing this arrangement when they were going through difficult times. Over time however, some state and private agencies paid boarding parents to care for the children they took in. Boarding out was the precursor to foster boarding homes/foster homes as we understand them today. Over time a system of casework and service provision would develop around children and families, involving the welfare system and direct aid, creating the modern, larger family regulation and foster systems.

“Saving” Native Children

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, in addition to “saving” poor children by removing many from their families, the country did the same to Native children—another “other.” The United States systematically separated them from their families with a hateful motive to “[k]ill the Indian in him, and save the man,” as it was put by one boarding school founder, believing that Native children could be “civilized” if rid of their culture. This goal was achieved by forced Americanization of Native children through placing them in government-run boarding schools. Ultimately, over a period of almost a century, hundreds of thousands of Native children were placed in these boarding schools. There were over 360 Indian boarding schools around the country, and there is evidence that many children at these schools were abused.

In general, these policies—put in place by the federal government—were supported by ideas of “the other” as applied to Native children and families. In addition to their attempts to “Americanize” Native children, American officials didn’t believe that Native parents valued education, and used that belief to justify efforts to compel them, even with police force at times, to send their children to these schools.

The experiences of the hundreds of thousands of Native children placed in Indian boarding schools are important to highlight in the context of the family regulation system. This overall distorted and overwhelmingly negative view of Native children and families is similar to the previously mentioned deficit-driven view of low-income children and families. Is it any wonder then that persecution based on Native identity, coupled with the related trend of extreme poverty, has resulted in the significant overrepresentation of Native children in the family regulation system today? The system is operating as it was designed: the underlying biases and prejudicial philosophies from the nineteenth century continue to inform institutions and decisions today, two centuries later.

Providing for Some Families—and Dividing Others

As time went on, child welfare reformers began pushing for direct aid to families, rather than removing children from their homes. Mothers’ pensions, developed by states, provided aid to single mothers to help prevent placement of their children in orphanages or boarding homes. And yet in the early twentieth century, aid was reserved for White families and was almost always unavailable to mothers and families of color: in a 1931 survey, only 3 percent of Mother’s Aid recipients were Black. During this time, child welfare reformers began to shift their view of out-of-home care, viewing it as an option only for “‘immoral’ parents [who] exposed children to depravity.” In theory, this moved the system away from primarily addressing children who were simply from low-income families—in fact, child welfare advocates made pronouncements, as early as 1909, that children shouldn’t be removed from their parents for poverty alone. However, in practice, “immorality” and “depravity” are inherently subjective determinations, and their usage in evaluating welfare conditions made it easy for certain, “othered” families to fall within those definitions and thus enter the foster system.

Access to mothers’ pensions varied widely across the country. As part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, mothers’ pensions were wrapped into Title IV of the Social Security Act of 1935 and became known as Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). A shift from state to federal responsibility for this program should have ensured that the program was more widely available, but even though ADC was a federal program, states determined eligibility, which created room for states to limit aid to homes they found “suitable.” This continued subjectivity meant they could exclude children and families they deemed “unsuitable,” including children of single mothers, Black families, and Mexican American families. In fact, a 1960 Louisiana law removed some 23,000 children from the ADC rolls because they were born outside of marriage; most of those children were Black. This “suitability” loophole effectively cut many families of color off from funding that was intended to provide them with stability and support.

The federal government eventually intervened, preventing states from denying aid based on suitability, which opened the door to aid for families of color who were previously excluded from the program. However, while this decision expanded aid to more families, it also allowed for more children to enter the foster system. In addition to preventing states from withholding aid to families through suitability requirements, the federal government required states to serve all ADC-eligible families by either providing services to make their homes suitable, or by moving the child elsewhere, to a suitable placement—in the foster system. This change, along with a 1962 amendment to the Social Security Act, provided federal funding for foster care costs and opened the doors for many children to enter the system. A 1963 report by the Child Welfare League of America reported that over 200,000 children were in the foster system, with Black and Native children representing 25 and 3 percent of the foster population respectively. In her book Shattered Bonds, Dorothy Roberts highlighted an ironic problem the ADC/AFDC changes created: a child experiencing the consequences of poverty could find themselves without support in their own homes (if their home could not be made “suitable”), but with financial support in the home of a stranger in the foster system.


At the beginning of 2020, officials from the U.S. Children’s Bureau—the agency responsible for funding the country’s foster care programs—wrote, in discussing the issue of poverty and neglect, that, “[w]e see poor and vulnerable families as ‘other’…Rather than seeing these root causes with clear eyes, calling them out, and taking them on with intention, we remain stuck as a system and society that focuses on the harmful aftereffects, often casting blame on vulnerable families for their very vulnerability.” The history discussed in this commentary demonstrates this is not new. It is the very foundation upon which our child welfare system is built: it’s a feature, not a bug. The administration of ADC/AFDC, Indian boarding schools, Orphan Trains, and today’s proxy of neglect for poverty in the foster system are all examples of the same value judgments about which families we choose to support and how we support them. Which families receive support to stay together and which families are separated, and for what reason? Systematically, we see that it’s the “othered,” those who society has deemed undeserving or less worthy of investment due to race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

The administration of ADC/AFDC, Indian boarding schools, Orphan Trains, and today’s proxy of neglect for poverty in the foster system are all examples of the same value judgments about which families we choose to support and how we support them. Which families receive support to stay together and which families are separated, and for what reason?

In terms of expanding family support, we are seeing some progress: the potential permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit would dramatically expand the number of Black families who are able to access the full benefit, for example; during the pandemic, the expansion lifted approximately 3 million children out of poverty. Another expansion of family support via the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act allows use of federal foster care dollars for prevention services to strengthen families and keep them together. Providing much-needed aid to low-income families may very well help many families avoid encountering the family regulation system to begin with. However, these initiatives, and more changes that need to come, must be paired with an understanding of how our deep history of “othering” and penalizing certain families, based merely on stereotypes about who they are, has informed our current system. We have to understand where we’ve been, so that we can move forward in a more equitable and dignified direction for all parents and children.

Editor’s note: this commentary was updated on January 11, 2022 to reflect 2020 graduation rate data for New York State.

About the Author

Chantal Hinds Education + Early Years

Chantal is an advocate for students involved in the foster system, working to ensure they have the school support they need to succeed. At Next100, Chantal’s work focuses on improving academic outcomes and narrowing the opportunity gap between students in the foster system and their peers. Chantal draws on her experience as an education attorney working directly with students and families impacted by the foster system and seeks to see schools as sources of support, encouragement, and care for this unique and vulnerable population.

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