Our nation’s child protection system emerged from a series of public and private responses to child poverty. Prior to 1850, poor children lived in almshouses, along with adult men and women, the aged and disabled, and the mentally ill. In the 1850s, the belief that the needs of poor children were distinct from those of adults gained acceptance, and a reform movement began. This movement demanded the removal of children from almshouses and their placement in separate institutions. While not new, orphanages proliferated in the second half of the 19th century, and by 1900 they housed approximately 100,000 children (Trattner, 1989). Concerns about the quality of many orphanages led to the creation of the Children’s Aid Society of New York in 1853, whose mission was the “placing out” of children and youth to family farms in the midwestern United States. The middle to late 19th century saw the emergence of child rescue efforts, based on the belief that poor children deserved court protection from “cruelty.” In 1874, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded and, serving in a law enforcement capacity, removed children from their parents when a private agency worker determined that they were being mistreated. This rescue movement was largely influenced by Christian philosophy and sought to save children from the demoralizing effects of poverty.
The early 1900s saw a reversal of child poverty policy. The new emphasis was on providing assistance to mothers and allowing children to remain in the home. Recognizing the growing social problem of homes without a male wage earner, New York established the first mother’s pension in 1897 (Frame et al., 1998). The preference for in-home care and a philosophy of family preservation was formally stated in the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, held in 1909. The conference recommended that children not be removed from their homes solely on the basis of poverty. Thus, the conference acknowledged the difference between parents’ economic conditions and their ability to raise a child. The White House conference did state that children should be removed from homes of “unworthy” or “immoral” parents, although it did not define such parents.
In the following decade, most States passed mother’s pension laws, which typically included “suitable home” provisions that maintained the connection between aid to mothers and the welfare of their children. For example, the 1913 Ohio legislation stated that “ . . . the mother must, in the Judgement of the Juvenile Court, be a proper person, morally, physically, and mentally, for the bringing up of her children . . .” (Frame et al., 1998). Language regarding “suitable homes” and “worthy” parents lacked clear standards, often resulting in subjective assessments of parental fitness. Under such provisions, many minority and immigrant mothers were deemed undeserving and received lower benefits (Frame et al., 1998). Minority communities relied on relatives and kinship networks to assume the role of caregiver or developed their own informal programs to help raise dependent children.
The Social Security Act of 1935 formalized the separate definitions and administrations of welfare and child protection and emphasized the importance of providing services as well as financial assistance. While mother’s pension programs had prevented the removal of some poor children from their homes, the Great Depression stretched the capacity of States to provide financial assistance to these families. Title IV established Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a program that gave cash assistance to children whose fathers were absent or incapacitated. While the Social Security Act sought to meet the financial needs of dependent children, the government also recognized that some children would need to leave their homes because of abuse, neglect, or other factors. Therefore, the act also gave cash grants to States to work with these families and to “seek innovative practices” in solving their crises. Title V (later known as title IV-B) established the Child Welfare Services Program to help disabled, homeless, dependent, and neglected children.
The Social Security Act contained no mention of suitable homes and thus did not link aid to the fitness of the mother. However, it did allow States to determine eligibility criteria for ADC. Congress later noted that States could consider “moral character” in determining eligibility for assistance, but it did not provide guidelines for making such assessments. A 1942 study of 16 State ADC programs conducted by the Bureau of Public Assistance found that while States’ eligibility criteria did not explicitly exclude nonwhite and illegitimate children, the interpretation of suitable homes provisions made such discrimination “endemic” (Bell, 1965). Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Federal Government encouraged States to develop objective criteria for determining suitability. However, since the Federal Government did not declare suitable homes provisions illegal, States enjoyed considerable leeway in determining which families to help.
In January 1961, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) Arthur Fleming revisited the suitable homes issue and determined that children should not be denied financial assistance because of the conduct of their parents. While his ruling did not deal directly with the problem of moral judgment, it did prohibit States from refusing to provide assistance to homes deemed unsuitable. Fleming wrote:
When a needy child who otherwise fits within the Aid to Dependent Children program of the State is denied the funds that are admittedly needed to provide the basic essentials of life itself, because of the behavior of the parents or other relative, the State plan imposes a condition of eligibility that bears no just relationship to the Aid to Dependent Children program. . . . Assistance will therefore be continued during the time efforts are being made either to improve the home conditions or to make arrangements for the child elsewhere (HEW State Letter No. 452, January 17, 1961).
Accordingly, it was necessary to provide for instances in which children lived in homes that were truly unsuitable and in which efforts to improve the conditions of the home were not successful. The alternative was foster care.
In 1961, Congress passed legislation requiring States to provide foster care as part of their AFDC programs. Two temporary amendments, later made permanent by the 1962 Public Welfare Amendments, were made to title IV, part E, providing Federal matching funds to States for the cost of providing foster care to AFDC-eligible children. Federal regulations required that States either continue welfare payments to the children’s parents and improve conditions in their homes or provide out-of-home care for the children. Thus, the first public foster care assistance payments, made under title IV-E of the Social Security Act, were the result of a liberalizing of the AFDC program.