“Kindly People of His Own Rank”: Racial Hierarchy and the Rise of Foster Family Care, 1910-1960

Michaela Simmons, University of California, Berkeley

In 1909, the White House Conference famously declared that “[h]ome life is the highest and finest product of civilization.” Reflecting changing ideas about child development and the worthiness of poor families, this declaration initiated the transition from institutionalization of impoverished and neglected children to foster family care. While not disputing the cultural changes that led to a ‘family first’ approach, this paper argues that concerns with an unstable racial hierarchy also played an important role in this transition. While official child welfare documents framed this shift as one driven by the best interests of the child, local data reveals that child welfare organizations, particularly voluntary agencies, utilized race-matched foster families to circumvent racial integration mandates. Using local archival evidence from the Domestic Relations Courts and child placement agencies in New York City, I find that foster care was used disproportionately as a strategy for African American children. I argue that placement agencies preferred race-matched foster family care as a more palatable form of child welfare integration, one that did not call for structural integration of services or institutions, and could still operate under the guidance of white directors. At a time when white ethnic groups strove to ‘take care of their own,’ foster family and boarding home care also emerged as a means to ensure the black community would ‘take responsibility’ for their own dependents. As the black community struggled under increasing poverty and segregation, local child welfare professionals responded to the dearth of black and Puerto Rican foster homes by unsuccessfully experimenting with the integration of foster care into public housing projects, foreshadowing its official incorporation into AFDC in 1962. Ultimately, the ascendance of foster family care was not simply the result of advancements in theories child development, but also deeply informed by racial politics.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 18. Changing Notions of Child Care and Welfare