Raising Government Children

A History of Foster Care and the American Welfare State

By Catherine E. Rymph

270 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 7 halftones, appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3564-4
    Published: October 2017
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3563-7
    Published: October 2017
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3565-1
    Published: October 2017

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In the 1930s, buoyed by the potential of the New Deal, child welfare reformers hoped to formalize and modernize their methods, partly through professional casework but more importantly through the loving care of temporary, substitute families. Today, however, the foster care system is widely criticized for failing the children and families it is intended to help. How did a vision of dignified services become virtually synonymous with the breakup of poor families and a disparaged form of “welfare” that stigmatizes the women who provide it, the children who receive it, and their families?

Tracing the evolution of the modern American foster care system from its inception in the 1930s through the 1970s, Catherine Rymph argues that deeply gendered, domestic ideals, implicit assumptions about the relative value of poor children, and the complex public/private nature of American welfare provision fueled the cultural resistance to funding maternal and parental care. What emerged was a system of public social provision that was actually subsidized by foster families themselves, most of whom were concentrated toward the socioeconomic lower half, much like the children they served. Analyzing the ideas, debates, and policies surrounding foster care and foster parents’ relationship to public welfare, Rymph reveals the framework for the building of the foster care system and draws out its implications for today’s child support networks.

About the Author

Catherine E. Rymph is associate professor of history at the University of Missouri.
For more information about Catherine E. Rymph, visit the Author Page.


"[Rymph] does an especially notable job of incorporating individual examples from archives, records, and letters to the Children's Bureau. . . and heads of other children's organizations to illustrate the central themes of the book, particularly those related to historical notions and intersections of race, class, and gender."--Journal of Children and Poverty

“Rymph’s deeply researched, clearly written work is mandatory reading for both professional social workers and scholars of the modern welfare state.”--Choice

"Rymph's book, supplemented by studies on the black tradition of self-help and child caring, provides a first step in understanding potential ways to serve families and their children in better ways."--Stacey Patton, Women's Review of Books

“Given her deep knowledge of the foster care system and her thoughtful engagement with the topic, one wishes that Rymph might take on the project of uncovering children’s experiences next. In the meantime, she has furnished us with an insightful, first-rate study of the history of foster care as a welfare program.”--H-Net Reviews

“A well-written, impressively researched book, marked by Rymph’s determination to inject the rarely archived viewpoints of foster parents and children into the narrative.”--The Journal of Southern History

“Full of powerful vignettes of actual people and their various paths to foster care, this is policy history with an all too human face. Refreshingly, Rymph refuses to be judgmental when it comes to those who give up children and those who take them in, which is a welcome approach to a topic too often presented through lenses of morality.”--Eileen Boris, University of California, Santa Barbara