The American Orphan Train Movement, the History of Foster Care, and How It Was Never Designed for the Children

Currently, I’m hammering away at Mailboat IV, trying to get it ready for the August 1st release and August 20-22 book signing tour. This week, I devoted some time to reviewing what I know about the foster care system in the United States, since our main character Bailey, is a foster kid.

Guys, it’s kind of like watching a car wreck and not being able to look away.

On the one hand, you have a lot of beautiful people who are opening their homes, hearts, and lives to kids who aren’t their own. You also have hard-working case workers, therapists, and CASAs (Court Appointed Special Advocates–lawyers for children) who are doing amazing things to help kids, and their stories are inspiring. You also find stories of adoption that are straight-up tear-jerkers.

But just hop over to YouTube and type in “foster care story.” Warning: only do this if you think you can handle the myriad tales of abuse and neglect that happen to children in the foster care system. (And for a perspective on Southeast Wisconsin, here’s an amazing 25-minute documentary that’s a real eye-opener.)

This week, I went on a mission to understand how abuse within foster care is happening–when the system itself exists to save children from neglectful and abusive situations. And it finally dawned on me to look into the history of foster care and adoption. (I always find a little historical context goes a long way in helping to understand the present.)

That’s when I learned just how closely the orphan trains of the 19th and early 20th century were connected to modern-day foster care. In fact, they’re considered the foundation of today’s foster care system.

What are the orphan trains? I’m glad you asked. I hear a lot of you like history. I do to. And I can’t fit the half of this research into my next novel, so here it is:

The Orphan Train Movement

If you’re not familiar with the orphan trains, they’re a fascinating bit of history–and there’s an entire genre of historical fiction dedicated to them!In a nutshell, a minister in New York City named Charles Loring Brace noted that there were some 30,000 children living in the streets–children he feared would grow up to become thieves and prostitutes without intervention.

Meanwhile, railroads and settlement were expanding across the continent. Families moving west needed help on their new farms and ranches. Brace had a solution.

He loaded children aboard trains and sent them West. The kids lined up on the platforms, tallest to shortest, and farmers and townsfolk could take their pick.

The orphan train program was a smash success. Brace expanded into other cities, and between the 1850s and 1920s sent some 250,000 children west.

Once I understood that modern-day foster care was formed out of the orphan train movement, I understood why abuse is so rampant in foster care.

It has its roots in child labor.

Foster Care Was Never for the Children

Not every child who rode the orphan train ended up in a loving home. The reason the orphan train was so popular was because it provided free labor.This was the 19th century. Children, like women and African-Americans, were considered property. Kids were to be seen and not heard. They had no rights. Even natural-born children were expected to be dutiful and obedient, nothing more.

So it isn’t surprising that many kids who took the orphan train later reported that their adoptive parents beat them, overworked them, and generally treated them differently from their own children. Volunteers within the communities were supposed to make sure this didn’t happen, but they were disincentivized from doing so, because where would the children go, if not here?

In perspective, the orphan train existed mainly for the benefit of adults, not kids. It kept unsightly urchins off city streets, prevented homeless kids from becoming adult criminals, and provided labor out West.

And that’s the way the system has always worked–for the adults, not the kids. In some Western cultures in the Middle Ages, it was common for nobles to foster each other’s children, as a means of sealing bonds between them, similar to arranged marriages. The children, of course, had no say in the matter. I’ve heard other tales (more research required) of children of the poor being indentured to the rich. Supposedly, this better provided for the children’s needs–but it was, in fact, both child labor and slave labor.

So these are the shoulders on which the modern-day foster care system is built. To this day, we find the poor, the addicted, and the abused inconvenient. We funnel them into prisons. And what do we do with the kids? Give them to strangers. It’s the only other option.

Child labor has thankfully been outlawed. But that also means there is no great incentive for every-day people to take in foster children. Today, there is a massive shortage of homes for these kids.

That’s why abusive homes–homes like Bud’s in the Mailboat story–manage to slip in. Case workers are overloaded and they’re desperate to keep the homes they already have. Like their 19th-century predecessors, they’re disincentivized to investigate allegations of abuse because these kids have to go somewhere.

Meanwhile, kids today are still disenfranchised. If a child says their foster parent is abusive–and the foster parent says they’re not–the adult is believed, not the child.

How Do We Help the Kids?

I find the entire situation infuriating. My boyfriend Charles can tell you that I storm around our apartment raving after a day spent researching foster care. Fiction about orphan kids is incredibly popular. We love them on the page. But in real life? They don’t get a chance. Their reality is completely unknown and misunderstood. Foster kids are criminalized, as if their situation were their own fault. Meanwhile, we believe that someone else is taking care of the problem.But to a still-large extent, they aren’t.

One of the things that foster care workers constantly ask for is awareness.

Another is more homes. Kids would be trapped in abusive placements less often if case workers simply had more options to choose from.

Meanwhile, I find myself wondering what we can do about the front-end. How can we help families who are struggling with poverty, addiction, and abuse? How can we support them before their household becomes too dangerous for kids to grow up in? As a girl who’s dad died when I was very young, I can attest to how strong the bond is between parent and child, even when the child “never knew” their parent. In my opinion, if we can help prevent kids from leaving their homes in the first place, that would be an ideal outcome.

And that, I think, funnels directly into the issue that’s ultimately closest to my heart: Mental health awareness. So many of the problems I’ve listed above–poverty, addiction, and abuse–stem directly from untreated mental health issues. I think one way to save our kids is to finally acknowledge that so much of our behavior–and misbehavior–stems from our mental health, and that not taking care of ourselves can result in the neglect or abuse of our kids. If we can reform our social systems, our judiciary systems, and our police systems to acknowledge the keystone of mental health, I believe this could be a better world, for adults and children.

My ideas are all half-formed and require piles of more research, including conversations with people who are actually in the trenches. But I hope something in here is helpful to someone. One of my goals as an author is just to get people thinking. To start a conversation. Because conversations are the beginning of change.

Have you ever been involved in foster care or adoption, in any way? I’d be happy to hear about your experiences, good or bad. I’m open to learning.

If not, I hope my little walk through history and modern-day foster care was enlightening and can spark conversations and ideas between you and those you know.

~ Danielle


All Bailey wanted was a family of her own. Instead, she found a body at the end of a pier… 

Staying Flexible When Life Is Uncertain

2021-01-13 Staying Flexible When Life Is Uncertain

As I write this in early in 2021, I can say that I used to have a writing schedule. It was heavily dependent on getting out of my own house to work. And then a pandemic came along, and both my routines and my schedule were torn to bits. (I know many of you can sympathize!)

But I’m big into trying to make lemonade out of lemons. (Or better, yet, lemon bars, lemon merengue pie, or even lemon cookies. Of course with powdered sugar! What kind of question is that?)

So what did my writing schedule used to look like? What’s it like now? And what have I learned from having life turned upside down?

My Ideal Writing Schedule

Before a new virus upheaved everything, my schedule was both simple and effective. Every morning, I walked to my coffee shop (the same one where I met Charles!), bought a latte, and claimed my favorite chair in front of the fire. (Sometimes I staked it out until an unwitting usurper finally left.)

Chair and fire secured, I sipped my coffee, sank down into my story world, and started to write.

I’d generally write for three or four hours, then pack up and walk home. In the afternoons, I’d transfer to my co-working space, where I would address various admin tasks such as marketing my books, answering emails, etc.

And then rumors started trickling in. A new virus had been detected in China. It was spreading at an alarming rate. It was only a matter of time until it came to the US…

My Pandemic Writing Schedule

Covid-19 arrived in Montana in March 2020. The governor ordered a state-wide shutdown. If we weren’t essential workers, we all went home.

I’ve tried working from home before. I already knew I was terrible at it! That’s why I have my coffee shops and my co-working space! It took me the better part of 2020 to refigure all my routines into something that worked again.

One of the biggest changes I made was choosing two days to be my “write-a-thon” days. These were my days to shut out all the admin tasks screaming at me and simply focus on my words.

But the other major change I made was hiring a book coach. (Yes, I’m that terrible at working from home! You can meet Jacquelyn in the blog post I wrote about her.)

Now on my writing days, Jacquelyn helps keep me on track to make sure the words get written.

What I’ve Learned

2020 was a year that challenged us all, in many different ways. (Can we even feel gratitude for such a year? I wrote a post about that during Thanksgiving 2020.)

I hated losing my schedule and routines. But 2020 really challenged my problem-solving capabilities, and in great news, I was the one who came out on top.

  • I had to learn to stay flexible and be creative. I can’t go to my coffee shop anymore? What can I do instead that would be just as effective?
  • I had to adopt new routines. My tried-and-true routines were gone. It was devastating. I had to keep innovating to find my way through.
  • I had to iterate and optimize. It was frustrating. I already knew what worked for me. (I.e., getting out of the house!) But I just kept trying different things until I found something that worked.

In great news, I feel ready for the next event of near-apocalyptic magnitude. (Because we all know life can never be boring.) 2020 tested my skills, but I came out equal to the challenge. And you know what? I’m proud of me.

Over to You!

How did 2020 challenge you? What new skills did you learn?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below! I love hearing from you.


Hey, at least we had plenty to read in 2020! Here are today’s best-sellers from my online shop:

The First Thing I Ever Wrote–And What I Learned from It

2021-01-06 The First Thing I Ever Wrote and What I Learned from It


This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for supporting a small business! 


Sometimes, I literally roll dice to choose blog post ideas, and this time, I just had to laugh at the results! Why?

Here was the original question: “What was the first thing you ever wrote, and what did you learn from it?”

Well. The first thing I ever wrote was a series of short stories called The Brown Bears. It was a complete and total knock-off of The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain. (Here’s one of the books I remember reading!)

Guys. I was FOUR when I started writing that fan fiction.

Yes. FOUR.

I guess the fact that I was reading and writing at such a young age is pretty impressive. But I promise you, there was absolutely no originality involved in my first stories, though I apparently had a rudimentary notion of copyright law. (Why else would I change the name of the series?)

But did I actually learn anything from that incredibly early venture into the literary world? I mean, beyond just practice holding a pencil?

Yes, actually. I think I did.

Just Follow Your Passions

When people ask me how long I’ve been writing, and I say, “Since I was four,” the reaction is always shock. Not only did I know how to read and write at an incredibly young age, I’m still doing it.

A hobby I started when I was four became “what I want to be when I grow up” by the time I was seven. And then I actually followed through on that, and now I’m the author of three published novels, a novella, six produced plays, and many published articles.

(Here’s one article I’m particularly proud of: Grant Marsh: Nautical Hero of the Plains. Also, you can shop all my available books here!)

This development of an early interest into a career choice is why I’m keenly interested in watching my nieces’ and nephews’ talents. The oldest girl buries herself in arts and crafts, her younger brother is fascinated by engineering, the next brother is our little sports hero, and their littlest sister can be found coloring all day long–inside the lines, even!

Their interests may or may not keep steady, and they may or may not choose a career based on what they liked when they were young. But regardless, they all show so much talent, and I can’t wait to see what they do with it.

To this day, I advocate people of all ages just following their interests. You never know where they will lead.

Know What You’re Not Good At

I was very devoted to illustrating my books when I was little. But to be honest… I’m not much better today than I was at the age of four!

At some point, I laid aside illustration. I realized I wasn’t really good at it, that my time might be better spent elsewhere, and even more importantly, that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I enjoyed writing.

Gradually, I learned that I didn’t need to draw images to create pictures. I could do it with my words. If you had known me during my teen years, you frequently would have found me in the basement of the library at the very last row, sitting on the floor and choosing out a new book to read on the craft of writing.

While I’m glad young me decided to illustrate her manuscripts, I’m also okay that older me left that interest behind to better develop what I was really good at and what I really enjoyed.

Fan Fiction Is a Great Way to Learn

I think my biggest takeaway is the understanding that my first stories–from early childhood to my mid-teens–were fan fiction. And that I’m okay with that.

Fan fiction often gets a bad rap. It’s not exactly original work. You’re maybe changing some names and details–or not–and just playing around with someone else’s story. Can you publish this kind of work? Should you? Where exactly does fan fiction belong in our literary landscape?

I’m not sure I have all the answers to those questions. But I can say this definitively: A great way to learn any art is by copying the masters.

I can look back on all the authors I emulated as a child, and I can often times tell you exactly what I learned from each one. What I write today is an amalgamation of skills learned from every writer whose shadow I walked in. And I’m proud of the things I’ve learned from them.

If nothing else, I support fan fiction for the opportunity it creates to learn.

Over to You!

Those are, I think, my three great takeaways from the first thing I ever wrote. Now here are my question for you, which you can answer in the comments below!

  • What was an early passion that you actually followed through on? Or what is one you wished you had? 

 

  • What did I talk about here that you’d like me to talk about more? Just ask! You could spark a future blog post idea. 

My early writing was kind of sketchy. But look where it’s lead! You can get any of my books autographed: