History of Foster Care

Have you ever stopped to think about the history of foster care?

We have been supporting young people in care since 1988, but fostering goes back much further than this.  What are the origins of foster care?  How has it changed over the years?  Here we provide an overview of the history of foster care.


History of Foster Care

Some of the earliest references to foster care are found in the Talmud and the Old Testament.

Within these references, there is an established duty to care for dependent children under law.  Early Christian church records mention children living with ‘worthy widows’, with funding provided by collections from the congregation.  These were early beginnings for fostering and subject to change.

Foster care in the modern sense was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1853, when Reverend John Armistead removed children from a workhouse in Cheshire and placed them with foster families.

The local councils (called unions at the time) were legally responsible for these children.  They paid foster parents a sum for maintaining the child in the workhouse.

These custodial decisions were determined by the Chancery Court under a process known as ‘wardship’, but without any legal basis.


An English church
Churches played an important role in the formation of foster care


Regulation of Fostering

Fostering (and adoption) started to be regulated in the mid-19th century after a series of “baby farming” scandals.  The practice of baby farming was born in the late Victorian era when there was no effective contraception and a great social stigma associated with having a child out of wedlock.

Adoption agencies and social services didn’t legitimately exist at the time.  This led to untrained women offering their services to unmarried mothers, who would hand over their baby with between £5 – £15 (a substantial sum of money then) in the hope the child could be re-homed, which most were.

By the end of the 19th century, some poor law authorities and voluntary organisations were referring to fostering as ‘boarding out’ and using it as an official alternative to placing neglected children in a workhouse or orphanage.

The First World War led to an increase in organised adoption through legitimate adoption societies and child rescue organisations, and pressure grew for adoption to be given legal status.

Legal precedent was established in 1926 with the Adoption of Children Act.  Since then, almost every decade has bear witness to new laws for increased regulation in the UK, with some differences between devolved nations.



The difference between fostering and adoption

Boy with Jetpack



Fostering Today

Fostering today takes several forms and its use has grown significantly as the use of children’s homes has reduced.

The DfE refers to eight forms of foster care: long term, short term, kinship, emergency, short breaks, remand, fostering for adoption, and specialist therapeutic.

The application process is the same for all types, although some agencies specialise in certain areas.

Sadly, the number of children entering care continues to rise, which makes the recruitment of new foster families vital.


Chart showing the rise in children coming into care from 1994 to 2022
Gov.uk chart showing the rising number of children in care


Fostering Statistics (gov.uk figures released November 2022)

On 31 March 2022 there were 82,170 looked after children in England, up 2% on the previous year.

57,540 (70%) of children were in foster care – an increase from 57,010 in 2021.  The number of children living in secure units, children’s homes, or semi-independent living also increased.

Most of the children in care in England, and most of those fostered, were looked after due to ‘abuse or neglect’ (66%).

13% were in care because of ‘family dysfunction’, and 7% due to living in a family that is going through a temporary crisis.


Screenshot of gov.uk statistics for reasons children are looked after in England, November 2022
Gov.uk data showing the reasons for children being looked after (November 2022)


This year, 8,280 applications to become a foster carer were received.  This is the lowest number of applications for several years, 21% lower than 2018 figures.

With more children coming into care and less fostering applications being received, where will children who need a safe foster family go?

The fostering network estimates a shortage of 9,265 foster families in England for the next 12-months alone.  In particular, there is a need for foster families to support teenagers and sibling groups.


Table showing the shortage of foster carers in the UK and regional breakdown within in England
Fostering Network estimates of the shortage of foster carers across the UK


Recent Development in Foster Care

As of February 2023, the UK Government have published an article called ‘How we are improving our support for vulnerable children and families‘ where they have announced they will be investing £25 million over the next two years for a recruitment and retention programme, the largest investment in recent foster care history.

Depending on the needs of the local area, the foster care recruitment will focus on areas where there is a particular shortage of placements for children. Such as sibling groups, teenagers, unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC), those that have suffered from complex trauma or parent and child foster homes.

This report is good news for foster carers as they will now receive a raise in their allowance that is higher than the inflation rate.

This increase is to help foster carers cover the increasing expenses of taking care of a child in their home.

It’s obvious the Government recognises the wonderful work that foster carers provide to these children.


Could You Foster?

The shortage of foster carers has a profound impact on vulnerable children in the UK.

Some children will find themselves living far away from family, friends and school, and being separated from their siblings.

Historically, 70-80% of foster placements have been within 20 miles of the child’s home.  That means 20-30% of placements are more than 20 miles away.

It’s obvious that many children will benefit from maintaining their current school and friendship groups, but for others, a change is in their best interests.

The average age of children coming to live with our foster families is 10, so a change of school is imminent.

Nevertheless, every effort must be made to recruit new families in local areas with high demand.  If you live in the Northwest or the Midlands and would like to explore becoming a foster carer, we can help.

Get in touch with us by completing our short enquiry form online, or call us on 0800 5 677677.  There is no obligation for anything more than a chat.


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Healing Pasts • Building Futures
Since 1988

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109 children come into care every day in the UK...