From Orphan Trains to Today

Photo by Michael Erhardsson

How has adoption changed?

Orphan trains were an attempt to decrease the population of poor children clogging the streets of big cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (1) Aid workers who were struck with the plight of these children thought that removing them from the dirty, dangerous city and planting them down on newly settled farming towns in the West and Midwest was a possible solution from many perspectives. Children would be provided a home and farm families would gain another helping hand, when school was not in session, of course.(2) This was the ideal. Parts of this dream still seem hard to attain. We still seek to make sure children find their way into homes that can nurture them. We can point to the flaws of the orphan train system, but how much better do we do today? A quick comparison of some key traits of the orphan trains might give us an idea.

Birth Family

Not much effort was made to maintain connection to family for the children on the orphan trains.

Homeless and poor children were everywhere in large cities in the mid 1800s. (3)The parents of these children might have been dead, drunk, or just poor. Sometimes children wandered away from their parents and were simply engulfed by the chaos of the big city. There was no one to help find a lost child or lost parent. There were no phones and few adults who had the luxury of time to help. When children couldn’t find their way back to family, might have survived by doing dangerous jobs that adults thought little bodies would be appropriate for in mines, on factory floors or up chimneys. (4)  Over time those jobs got filled and the children who couldn’t get jobs scrounged out a life on the streets. (5) When it came time to find children to put on orphan trains there were no parental rights to terminate in court. There was a dirty child in a corner of a dead end street who may or may not know anything about their past.

Today we can find birth family, but we don’t always support them.

These days children who find themselves in a new home in foster care or through adoption are typically not grabbed off the street with no warning. Case workers usually become involved if a child is facing problems in a home, or ends up on the street. An investigation is done to find out what is really going on before a child is placed in a new temporary home. Even if children are sent to a new home for a while the birth family is given a chance to put together a safe supportive living situation for them to potentially return to. (6) Horror stories exist where protocols weren’t followed, or biases or prejudices influence the placement of some children. (7) We can’t pretend that communication with the birth family isn’t possible these days. The motivation of family preservation and helping children who need adoptive homes find them is present in theory.(8)  It is an improvement on throwing children willy-nilly onto trains without the consent of their birth families. While the system represents an ideal, more work needs to be done to support biological families and to vet and support foster and adoptive families in reality. 

Adoption Stress and Trauma

Kids were told to forget their past.

During this time period children were beginning to be seen, not as mini-adults, but as a different form of creature that needed attending and rearing. The first labor laws were starting to go into effect and schools were starting to be available to many children, even the poorest ones. (9) Caring for children was definitely better than sending them up into small dirty chimneys to clean them, or pushing them into the small nooks of coal mines. At the same time, the education they were receiving as well as the rights and respect were much more rigid than they are now. The expectations of proper society and religion segregated many people groups. When children were told to board the trains going west to be adopted by new families, they weren’t told just to smile and accept a place at a new dinner table. Some were told to forget their past life, and even baptized into new religions at the whim of the agency taking them away from the life they knew. (10) They may have been beings in need of care, but they weren’t yet people with their own views and feelings. (11)

We know there is adoption trauma, but families aren’t always prepared for dealing with it.

Today the science of how children think can tell us that we need to acknowledge the trauma of leaving one home for another. (12) We know in theory that children who are adopted have many different feelings about that event in their lives, and those feelings can change and evolve as they grow. That is the truth. (13) In reality not every adoptive family acknowledges this. Families are screened for their ability to hold down a job, put out a fire and provide a bed for a child. They are given training in the rest of the job, but that doesn’t mean they are able or willing to check in with their adopted child years down the road to see if there are residual after effects from when the child entered their home. Some adoptive families mean well, but just don’t know how to address the trauma. Some adoptive families have their own issues to deal with. Some agencies don’t properly prepare and support adoptive families as they should. Children are still put in a position where a previous family, culture, or even religion is set aside and never spoken of again once they are adopted. (14) They aren’t put to work in the farming fields as some children adopted from the orphan trains were. We could still do better to honor all of who they are and not just the iteration of them that is present in their current home.  

Safe Placements

Kids were left with random families that the people from the orphan train didn’t know much about.

By the time the organizations that ran the orphan train found children, cleaned them up, gave them appropriate names and religions and sat them down on the orphan trains a lot of their energy was expended. Down the road when the orphan trains pulled into the station the originators of the plan were relying on partners that may or may not have had the attention to detail they should have. (15) The local partners at each stop of the train gave impassioned speeches to those who may have received the children about how to care for them. Documents that families signed required them to house and educate the children they took with them. Following that trusting signature there was little organized accountability. Some children did find themselves in families and even communities that cared about bringing them up with care, others were not so lucky. (16)

Adoptive families today are vetted, but the system isn’t perfect.

Today social workers put forth an attempt to make sure the families that accept children will not make them indentured servants. Families go through routine background checks, home checks, and classes. (17) The process is not quick and not without a fair share of vulnerability on the adoptive or foster family’s part. No one will be invited to their local church for the evening service on that day and leave with a child to add to their family. Even with these checks in place there are still foster and adoptive families that range from bad to evil. Lies can be told. Social workers are busy and key red flags can fall through the cracks amid a flurry of visits, introductions and pressure to find homes for children.(18)  Many more children do find homes that will educate them and love them than in orphan train days, but we can do better and hopefully we will. 

We are still on a journey.

Some at the time viewed the orphan trains with disdain, comparing them to versions of selling cattle or even slaves. Sometimes children found themselves in situations disturbingly similar to those of people who were considered property. Then there were children who eventually made it from a condition of being alone and hungry to being cared for and belonging. The orphan trains were an imperfect solution to a real problem. (19) The problem that existed back in the late 1800s and early 1900s is better understood now. We know the answer needed to be far more nuanced than finding sad, dirty urchins in the street and forcibly imposing on them our solution for their salvation. We know that some children we see in similar conditions today are just sad and having a bad day, some are in loving families that are temporarily struggling and need temporary support, and some need new homes.(20)  On the flip side, placing children in the homes of clean-appearing church attenders does not guarantee that the children will thrive or even be loved. (21) Helping children who need homes find them has never been a simple endeavor. We have made improvements from the days of loading children onto trains for a new life with strangers, but there is still progress to be made.


  1. Blakemore, Erin. ” ‘Orphan Trains’ Brought Homeless NYC Children to Work On Farms Out West.”, 9 Apr. 2019,
  2. “Brace, Charles Loring.” VCU Social Welfare History Project,
  3. Schlott-Gibeaux, Rikki. “Orphan Trains: A Brief History and Research How-to.” New York Family History, 13 Nov. 2020,
  4. Schuman, Michael. “History of child labor in the United States—part 1: little children working.” US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan. 2017,
  5. Hufford, Doborah. “The Heartbreaking Tale of Orphan Trains.” Notes from the Frontier, 21 Jan. 2020,
  6. “Child Protective Services: A guide to Investigative Procedures.” Virginia Department of Social Services,
  7. DeGarmo, John. “Here’s The Truth About Foster Parents that Society is Ignoring.”, 21 Feb. 2018, .
  8. Wynne, Debbie. “Child Placement Best Practices to Support Permanency and Preservation Across the Continuum.” National Council for Adoption, 1 July 2016,
  9. Sea Gold, Sunny. “This Is What School Was Like 100 Years Ago.” Reader’s Digest, 11 Nov. 2022, .
  10. Ashcraft, Jenny. “Orphan Trains Head West.” Fishwrap, 3 Mar. 2019, .
  12. Bromberg, Jada. “Trauma, identity and love: Being adopted didn’t give me a better life, but changed my path.” USA Today, 27 Nov. 2021, .
  13. Blanchfield, Theodora. “What Are the Mental Health Effects of Being Adopted?” Very Well Mind, 14 Feb. 2022,
  14. St. Martin, Michele. “Double identity: Changing attitudes toward adopted kids’ birth cultures.” Minnesota Parent, .
  15. Warren, Andrea. “The Orphan Train.” Washington Post, 1998,
  16. Grossman, Ron. “The orphan train: A noble idea that went off the rails.” Chicago Tribune, 19 July 2018, .
  17. “How Do I Become a Foster Parent?” Child Welfare Information Gateway, .
  18. Dupere, Katie. “6 problems with the foster care system — and what you can do to help.” Mashable, 22 Aug. 2018,
  19. Trammell, Rebecca S. “Orphan Train Myths and Legal Reality.” The Modern American, Spring 2009, 3-13.
  20. Milner, Jerry, and David Kelly. “It’s Time to Stop Confusing Poverty With Neglect.” The Imprint, 17 Jan. 2020,
  21. Benedict, M, et al. “Types and frequency of child maltreatment by family foster care providers in an urban population.” NIH National Library of Medicine, 18 July 1994,

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