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  • Adoption, Fostering, and the Poor
  • Claudia Nelson (bio)

In and after the 1860s (when Florence Hill used the phrase as the title of a book subtitled “the training of juvenile paupers”), destitute young Britons were often termed “the children of the state.” This de-emphasizing of the individual parent signals profound doubt of family life’s ability to eradicate the problems associated with impoverished children, who were seen either as embodying their forebears’ presumed irresponsibility and criminality or as being the victims of these traits in their caregivers. If reformers indefatigably missionized the poor through district visiting, mothers’ unions, Sunday schools, compulsory education, and more, much of the discussion surrounding the slum child in particular hinted that such efforts were doomed, not merely as long as children remained within the home of origin but perhaps even as long as they remained within any private home. One influential view, expressed at the very beginning of the Victorian era by James Kay (later Kay-Shuttleworth) in The Training of Pauper Children (1839) and solidifying over the remainder of the century (Berry 38, 164), held that the impoverished family, a powerful rival to its middle-class counterpart because the poor were so numerous, had to be dispersed if society were to be improved. The solution proposed for children separated from such families was generally neither adoption nor foster care but institutionalization or transportation, child-size versions of the judicial system’s preferred methods for handling adult criminals.

Lydia Murdoch argues that middle-class child welfare workers’ tendency to demonize the families of the poor was a way of “denying citizenship to large segments of the working, particularly urban, poor” as part of an effort to impose middle-class “notions of citizenship” (7). Similarly, I suggest that the frequent demonization of adoption among the poor sometimes imposed and sometimes dismissed middle-class notions of home and the family—in a culture that doubted that these notions could be spread throughout society as a whole. The anxiety and hostility that certain middle-class spokespeople directed toward adoptions involving the alien family configurations of the poor may be observed in many texts. [End Page 57]

“Adoption” was a contested term in Victorian England. Reformers sometimes reserved it for the affluent; thus, muckraking journalist James Greenwood, writing on “‘Baby-Farmers’ and Advertising ‘Child Adopters’” in The Seven Curses of London (1869), usually puts the word in ironic quotation marks, sometimes preceding it with “mock,” when discussing fosterage by the poor. Greenwood concedes that the poor may call an arrangement “adoption,” but he asserts that more sophisticated and/or moral individuals would properly call it “baby farming” or, often, “child murder.” Sentences such as the following ensue: “It is these ‘adopters’ of children who should be specially looked after, since, assuming that heartless roguery is the basis of their business dealing, it becomes at once manifest that their main source of profit must lie in their ability to get rid of their hard bargains as soon as possible” by abandoning or killing the child (30). As with similar campaigns discussed by George Behlmer (82–84), it is plain that “adoption” in the sense of baby farming is the dark inversion of “adoption” in its reputable, middle-class sense. While Greenwood has some sympathy for birth mothers, who, he concedes, may genuinely try to make good arrangements for their children, he has none for caregivers.

Even when no money changed hands, adoption arrangements among the poor were often viewed with deep suspicion. Greenwood acknowledges that “for one child taken from the streets in the highly respectable West-end, and privately housed and taken care of, there might be shown fifty who have found open door and lasting entertainment in the most poverty-stricken haunts of London” (31–32). Yet, even while he attributes these “open door[s]” to laudable pity for the helpless, the readiness of the “worst to do” (31) to house a homeless infant is a worse problem than the upper classes’ reluctance to help. As the once-appealing toddler develops (because of his environment, we learn) into an older child noteworthy for “mischievous cunning” and “audacious and tiresome” (32) ways,

clubbing takes the place of...


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pp. 57-61
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