- Fostering on the Farm: Child Placement in the Rural Midwest by Megan Birk
Many of us gleaned our first awareness of late nineteenth-century child placement programs from the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables, which recounts the adventures of an orphan placed on a rural farm. The novel is not simplistic — consider, for example, Anne's confrontation with her guardians' initial disappointment that she is not a boy — but it is reassuringly upbeat, advertising the rich life opportunities implicit in child placement programs for children who approached their new lives with grit and good values. Is this message of opportunity an accurate one? What under-lay the proliferation of child placement programs in the late nineteenth-century Midwest? In Fostering on the Farm, Megan Birk depicts the warm glow of nostalgia that suffused a motley, haphazard assortment of child placement programs, and these programs' eventual decline in the face of a Progressive Era push for closer administrative supervision and a more sheltered childhood for all children.
The narrative at the centre of Fostering on the Farm is a competition of ideals with reality. Advocates of farm fostering programs saw farm families as the most suitable guardians for orphans and other displaced children because they could offer children "a 'normal' family life consisting of parents, school, religious services, and healthy work" in addition to training in useful skills (17). Nineteenth-century Americans idealized farm life both for the sake of its family economy and old-fashioned self-sufficiency and because many associated agricultural life with virtue. Yet it was pragmatic concerns that dominated the practice of fostering, and pragmatic concerns dominate Birk's account of it. While some farm families wished to adopt babies and toddlers, school-age children were valued almost exclusively for the work they did. Farm fosterers were not necessarily cruel to their charges, but they prioritized production, and it was their need for labour that sustained their enthusiasm for fostering programs. Birk cites numerous instances of foster families returning children for no other reason than that they no longer had need of their labour.
Another narrative thread that runs through Fostering on the Farm turns on the gradual emergence of public oversight of the care of vulnerable children. Children were typically placed out by private charities, with little public oversight of the process. After the fact, state and local charity boards and volunteer visitors attempted to supervise placements but were seldom effective; due to the vagaries of rural travel, they often did not manage to achieve their goal of visiting each placed-out child once per [End Page 618] year. Eventually, in the Progressive Era, the need to supervise child placements created expanded spheres of activity for both state governments and professional social workers — and when state governments and social workers looked closely at rural placements, they generally did not like what they saw.
Fostering on the Farm is not just a history of child placement programs but also a history of the Midwest in the Gilded Age and Progressive Eras, carefully embedded in regional historiography. Birk subtly captures evolving popular attitudes toward the Midwest, idealized as the most wholesome, most truly American region in the era of national adjustment that accompanied Reconstruction, industrialization, and rapid immigration, yet increasingly decried, in the 1910s and 1920s, for being bland and backward-looking. The rise and fall of the popularity of rural child placement programs neatly tracks the rise and fall of the Midwest's reputation among American opinion-makers, and historians of the Midwest will find much to mull over in this book.
There is less human interest in Fostering on the Farm than one might expect to find in a book about vulnerable children. Although Birk recounts numerous anecdotes and includes eight black-and-white photographs, the narrative shifts around so frequently that the reader never becomes invested in any individual child, social worker, charity, or institution. Because the corpus of primary sources spans several Midwestern states, it can be...