Foster Care Facts

In 1873, a church worker was asked to visit a young girl residing in a New York City tenement by neighbors concerned for the child’s welfare. The worker found the girl to be thin and dirty, with multiple bruises covering her tiny body. Finding no alternative sources of help, the worker reached out to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for assistance. The case was eventually brought before a New York judge, and the girl was removed from her home and placed with another family. The girl was Mary Ellen Wilson, and she is believed to be the first official foster child.1

Foster care has undergone multiple changes since Mary Ellen’s case was first publicized. In 1853, the Children’s Aid Society initiated the Orphan Trains. Through this program, orphaned and neglected children were sent from the East Coast to live with families on farms in the Midwest. Over 120,000 children were placed in more than 45 states through the program.2 At the same time, agencies began to place children in homes with families and supervise these homes to ensure that children received appropriate care.3 These movements trended away from prior practices of placing children in orphanages and institutions.  Governments began to get involved, licensing foster homes and administering funds to provide for children. By 1950,children in foster care outnumbered children in institutions for the first time.

  • In 2008, almost half a million children resided in foster care in the United States.4
  • 130,000 of these children remained in the system because they were waiting to be adopted.
  • The average length of time children spent in foster care exceeded 2 years.
  • Over half of children exiting foster care were reunited with their families.

Each year, approximately 270,000 children exit foster care nationally through a variety of outcomes, such as reunification with their families, adoption, guardianship and emancipation. Though no longer a part of the child welfare system, this experience often leaves lasting marks on these children, who may need additional services and assistance after exiting the system to lead healthy and happy lives.

1 Watkins, S.A. (1990). The Mary Ellen Myth: Correcting Child Welfare History. Social Work, 35(6), pp. 500-503.
2 The Children’s Aid Society, The Orphan Trains,
3 The Adoption History Project, Fostering and Foster Care, The University of Oregon,
4 US Dept. of Health and Human Services, AFCARS report, Trends in Foster Care and Adoption, August 2008.

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