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April 28 , 2009

Fostering on the Farm

Child Placement in the Rural Midwest


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.

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