CWTI Trainings

documentation graphic: woman on computer, man writing

Evolution of Federal Child Welfare Legislation















The Historical Timeline of Federal
Child Welfare Policy

Early America: Colonialism to the 19th Century

The child welfare system in the United States has evolved according to society’s beliefs and attitudes around the role government should play in the care and protection of children.  In colonial America, government took little to no role in the issues related to children and families, viewing this as a local and private matter.  During the 18th century, orphans and children whose parents could not care for them were often indentured out to work for other families.  By the early 19th century, private religious and charitable organizations established the first orphanages to care for children without parents.  The earliest form of organized foster care emerged in the mid-19th century, when private social service agencies began placing orphans with foster families out of concern about the effects of institutional care on children’s development.  However, prospective families were rarely screened and agencies seldom monitored placements. 

19th & Early 20th Century: Children and Industry

Photo of girl in a factory

Photo from
"The History Place" website

Children were widely used as cheap labor in rural and urban areas until the progressive reforms of the early 20th century.  Until this time, little attention was paid to the fate of children who labored in mines and factories.  Many of these child laborers were under age twelve and some were as young as age four.  Working twelve to fifteen hours a day for minimal wages, many died from on-the-job injuries or suffered from occupational diseases such as black lung.  At that time there were no controls or regulations regarding safety, health, and sanitation in the workplace.  In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act provided the first legal rights of children by setting the minimum age for child labor at sixteen.

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