Thursday, April 17, 2008

By whose standard is this controversial?

My latest LAS News p. 24, Winter 2008 [University of Illinois] reports on the research of Richard Akresh about fostering children among Africans. It seems that poor African families often send a child to live with wealthier relatives who agree to feed, house and educate them in exchange for their labor. Akresh did surveys, accumulating 600 pounds of paper. Yes, he did find some abuse, but in 15 randomly selected villages 600 households were surveyed tracking 300 foster children. They found that the fostered children were better off than their biological siblings in education and health. So the system, developed through the wisdom of the people, did work. And yes, the children did work, and they weren't as well treated as the children of the host family, but I'm guessing even the better off relatives weren't wealthy.

Maybe it was the headline that irritated me: "The fostering dilemma: Controversial practice benefits some African children." It sounds to me that families were developing their own methods and giving their children the best possible opportunities. Checking the author's homepage, I see this is not his title.

This practice was common in the United States and Europe--there were informal child care arrangements, whether you call them fostering, adoption via orphan train, poor farms or child labor. There is still informal fostering arrangements in this country, particularly in black communities. The HBO movie Lackawana Blues starring S. Epatha Merkerson tells of a woman in the 50s and 60s who took in not only children, but other down and outers. A few years ago I was reading an old journal of my great great grandfather who was a farmer/ teamster/ doctor in Ohio before the Civil War. One of the entries in his log (in German and English) was about a niece taken into the family in exchange for her labor, and when she reached maturity, she would receive certain items of furniture and clothing. When I was doing research on 19th century serials, I found ads in religious magazines placed by mothers looking for families to take their children for awhile.

But considering some of the odd stories we hear today, I wonder who really has the more strange customs. I heard one this morning from an adoption attorney that just curled my toes. No servitude was involved, but the child AND the two sets of would be adoptive parents were treated callously and cruelly by the state agency which was holding them all hostage. Only families with a lot of wealth could have hired lawyers to work out the mess that social workers and state bureaucrats had created "in the best interests of the child."

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