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Fostering on the Farm

Fostering on the Farm: Child Placement in the Rural Midwest

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Fostering on the Farm
    Book Description:

    From 1870 until after World War I, reformers led an effort to place children from orphanages, asylums, and children's homes with farming families. The farmers received free labor in return for providing room and board. Reformers, meanwhile, believed children learned lessons in family life, citizenry, and work habits that institutions simply could not provide. Drawing on institution records, correspondence from children and placement families, and state reports, Megan Birk scrutinizes how the farm system developed--and how the children involved may have become some of America's last indentured laborers. Between 1850 and 1900, up to one-third of farm homes contained children from outside the family. Birk reveals how the nostalgia attached to misplaced perceptions about healthy, family-based labor masked the realities of abuse, overwork, and loveless upbringings endemic in the system. She also considers how rural people cared for their own children while being bombarded with dependents from elsewhere. Finally, Birk traces how the ills associated with rural placement eventually forced reformers to transition to a system of paid foster care, adoptions, and family preservation.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09729-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: The Search for a Home
    (pp. 1-16)

    In 1870, the superintendent of the Montgomery County, Ohio, children’s home placed three-year-old James in the home of an area farmer. Despite the young age of his ward, the superintendent drew up an indenture contract in which the farmer promised care, a place in his family, and a payment to James when he reached majority age. While the details of James’s childhood remain unknown, he probably grew up learning how to handle farm tools, animals, and related chores and attending a few months of school each year. At the age of seventeen, James wrote to the superintendent explaining his unhappiness....

  5. 1. The Rural Ideal: Constructing a Myth
    (pp. 17-42)

    Children gauged their experiences on placement farms in different ways. Some became giddy with the prospect of kittens and chickens, or interested when the oats, corn, and wheat were planted. Many wrote back to the institution with summaries of their new lives. A boy from the Michigan State Public School reported, “I have got a potato patch of my own to sell and buy me a Sunday suit… I had a patch of popcorn, but I planted it so deep it never came up. I don’t go to school. I went a month and half last winter. I will commence...

  6. 2. “Qualify them for the duties of life”
    (pp. 43-77)

    In 1857, directors of the Huron County, Ohio, infirmary indentured William Doyle, age two, to Comfort Lewis to “learn the trade of farming.” This contract bound the two together for eighteen years. By 1870, the Lewises listed William as a member of their family by including him under their surname in the census enumeration. William’s occupation was farm laborer. Apparently, William served out at least most of his indenture. A decade later William no longer lived on the Lewis farm, but two other young people—Elsie Mack, age seven, listed as “adopted daughter,” and George Lavelly, age nineteen, listed as...

  7. 3. “The hideous consequences”
    (pp. 78-104)

    During the first months of 1870, ten-year-old Phoebe Ann Moses left the Darke County, Ohio, poor farm, destined for a farm placement home in a neighboring county. Anne, as she was called, represented a fairly typical placed-out child—her widowed mother could not provide for all of her children and so sent two of her daughters to the local institution. When a man came to the institution looking for a child to help his wife around the house, the Darke County Poor Farm superintendent sent Anne home with him, believing she would be a useful helper to a farm household...

  8. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  9. 4. “The right of the state to interfere is unquestioned”
    (pp. 105-142)

    In 1893, the Indiana Board of Charities received newspaper reports about a placed-out child who had been raped. The victim, a twelve-year-old ward of a county children’s home, left the institution with a strange man by order of a township trustee. The man then assaulted the child and left her for dead. This terrifying attack occurred in part because the trustee made a decision on his own, apparently without the input of the institution’s superintendent or other trustees. Because supervision by institutions varied widely in quality and children suffered as a result, states built frameworks to oversee children in placements...

  10. 5. The Farm, the Federal Government, and the Decline of Placement
    (pp. 143-177)

    Hastings Hart provided a blunt assessment of farm placement when he discussed how the farm affected children: “Take a boy of good parentage, with natural refinement, good features, small bones, small hands and feet; put that boy on a farm, where he will have to get up at five o’clock in the morning, milk five or six cows, attend a district school, with meager opportunities, and where he will be associated with people who lack refinement; and one of two things will happen: the boy will either deteriorate and go backward, or he will become discouraged and a complete failure…...

  11. Epilogue: “The great drama of childhood”
    (pp. 178-183)

    In 1920, Indiana State Visiting Agent Millikan mused, “And now another year has passed in the great drama of childhood, but the curtain must rise again and let us see that the stage is properly set for the coming months.” During the 1920s, setting the stage properly meant relying on a variety of care practices that included placement homes, foster homes, and institutional care. During the 1920s and beyond, states placed greater emphasis on paid foster homes and family preservation.¹ In 1922, the Ohio Department of Welfare reported that 71 percent, or 1,400 children, remained in free homes, while almost...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 184-213)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 214-228)
  14. Index
    (pp. 229-234)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 235-238)