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… 

2 Replies to “The American Orphan Train Movement, the History of Foster Care, and How It Was Never Designed for the Children”

  1. Being an orphan was and still can be such a rough hand to be dealt. I wonder why so many authors write books where the protagonist is an orphan. Books Like Peter Pan and Harry Potter come to mind. Kids gravitate towards orphan characters almost as readily as authors do. I wonder what the compels us to gravitate towards characters who are orphans?

    1. Stephan, really good questions! In general, we like stories about “the underdog,” so my best guess is that it has something to do with that. Also, for kids literature in particular, the main character has more agency when they don’t have a parent telling them what to do. LOL!

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