The Past

Adoption has occurred since ancient times.  The move of children from birth parents to other adults who want them has existed in all cultures.  Adoption systems were established in Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Babylonian cultures.  Even the Bible references adoption.

Adoption frequently involved parentless children becoming slaves to new families, though sometimes older male children were selected by wealthy families without sons.  They would pay for the adopted child so the family would have a male heir.  This also led to family alliances, where the boys being adopted were not expected to end contact with their birth families.  The adoption was viewed similarly to a marriage of the two families, which served to raise the power and status of each family.  Adoption was fairly common and was not secret.  The driving force for adoptions in ancient times was for the benefit of the adults adopting the children, not the interests of the child.  During the Middle Ages, adoption became less prevalent, as bloodlines became the overriding factor for inheritance and the Catholic Church began to look at the needs and best interest of adoptable children by creating treatment standards and opening homes to care for the children.

In the United States, informal adoptions have occurred in Native American tribes and since the first settlers.  Children who were orphaned were usually adopted by relatives.  When this did not occur, two schools of thought developed about the best way to “care” for these children.  Initially, children were placed into families where they were either informally adopted, became apprentices or indentured property of the new family.  This early form of placement would lead to later systems of foster care and formalized adoption.  As America grew and industrialized, the move of more people to cities led to larger populations of children in need of care. Concerns arose about indentured children who were not truly integrated into new families.  The concept of caring for many children in one residence began to develop.  In Georgia in 1737, the first private orphanage in North America was established, and in 1790 the first public orphanage was opened in South Carolina.  Other states and cities soon opened their own orphanages with over 150 orphanages existing in the United States by 1860.  These institutions usually housed white children under ten years old, or if older children did live there, they did so in an indentured role.  The system had many drawbacks, such as poor health conditions, quality of care, and the continued concern about indentured children.  Also, orphanages did not allow African American or biracial children to be in the same homes as white children, and very few orphanages were devoted to African American children.

 The Orphan Train Movement

One strong opponent of orphanages was Charles Loring Brace, a Protestant minister who founded The Children’s Aid Society in 1853.  He recognized the need to do something to address the population of orphaned or homeless children in New York City, which in 1850 was estimated to be 30,000.  He did not favor institutional care and felt that raising children in orphanages was very harmful to their development.  He believed strongly that children needed to be in safe homes with committed married couples who would provide nurturing and a moral upbringing.  He envisioned that removing orphaned, homeless or poor children of underprivileged immigrant families from the streets of New York City and placing them into upstanding farm families in the Midwest would “save” them from a life of suffering and immorality.

His vision came to fruition in the form of the orphan train movement which lasted from 1853-1929.  Many children were relocated from overcrowded eastern cities and transported to new homes by trains, which stopped in towns along the way where people chose the children they wanted, and placements were basically made on the spot.  The children were supposed to be treated as family members, and older youth were to be paid by the families for their work on the farms. Some children ended up in families who treated them well and accepted them as members of their family, while others were treated poorly and lived in adverse conditions.

Although these children were moved into farm families permanently, many of these “adoptions” were not legally finalized. Many children placed through the orphan train movement were from families of low socioeconomic status and not orphaned, but fostered permanently in their new families. Brace’s vision was that the children of poor, immigrant families, who were usually Catholic or Jewish, needed to be removed from their birth families so they could be raised by Protestant Christian farm families so they would become “good, productive, moral Americans.”

Similarly, the Catholic Church, through the New York Founding Hospital, established a system of moving orphaned children by train to Catholic farm families. Catholics wanted to ensure that children born to unmarried Catholic women were placed into Catholic families. The Catholic orphanages were established to care for older youth, and many of the young children were relocated to Catholic families who were recommended by their priests.

The orphan train movement was controversial, but lasted 75 years and relocated an enormous number of children in America.  A major outcome of this program was the eventual establishment of an official foster care system in the United States.  The program ended in the 1920’s with the shift towards the newly established foster care system.  The number of children relocated through this movement varies from 200,000 to 250,000 children. Today, The National Orphan Train Complex, located in Concordia, Kansas, hosts a museum and research center aimed at preserving the “stories and artifacts of those who were part of the Orphan Train Movement” (

The Settlement Movement

During the same time, the Settlement Movement, which also lasted from the 1880’s into the 1920’s, was taking place in the U.S. The philosophy of this movement was that if middle class volunteers, called settlement workers, lived in “settlement houses” in poor areas of cities, the workers could help to educate their neighbors and provide childcare, sometimes including fostering children, and healthcare, which would improve the lives of the residents and help to support families and their children.  Over 400 settlement houses were created in the U.S., the most famous of which was called the Hull House. Female settlement workers from this settlement house became extremely influential in child welfare, working to make changes in child labor laws and those that protected children from abuse and neglect.  Two of these women, Julia Lathrop and Grace Abbott, would later become the first two Chief’s of the Children’s Bureau when it was created in the early 1900’s.