Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Longing to "Belong": Foster Children in Mid-Century Philadelphia (1946-1963)

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Longing to "Belong": Foster Children in Mid-Century Philadelphia (1946-1963)

Article excerpt

In 1956, W, a 15 year-old foster child residing at the Philadelphia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's temporary shelter, met with her caseworker to discuss her future placement plans. After a failed attempt to return home to her natural mother, W expressed her deep disappointment and confessed to suicidal thoughts. In a subsequent meeting with her worker, W said she wanted try another foster home and longed to "belong to just one person," despite a long history of failed placements. The worker, while sympathetic, questioned the girl's logic. Echoing the expert literature's depiction of biological ties as intractable, the worker attributed W's failed placement to her deep emotional attachment to her natural parents. The caseworker explained to W "that both she [W] and J [W's brother] had a close attachment to their mother both positive and negative and that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for them to take on another mother." The 15 year-old client, like others, appeared to accept the worker's narrative: "W seemed amazed at what I said and certainly seemed to understand what 1 was explaining to her." (1) The worker's account of her meetings with W provides a rare glimpse into the world of mid-century foster care and reveals how foster children used the casework relationship to articulate and organize their inner worlds. It also exposes social workers' veneration of biological bonds, and the paradoxical tendency for professional narratives to simultaneously elicit and marginalize children's voices.

This essay investigates the experience of children in foster care at mid-century against the larger backdrop of shifting professional discourse on foster care, including revisions in social work's family preservation ideology, the prominence of psychodynamic thought in the postwar social sciences and social work, and the strength of nuclear family ideology. Existing historical scholarship regarding foster care is largely focused on Gilded Age and Progressive Era reforms, the "rediscovery" of child abuse in 1960s, and related policy initiatives in the 1970s. Given the absence of large-scale federal child welfare policy efforts, historical discussions of foster care provision often ignore the period of the 1940s through the 1950s altogether. (2) This paper, in contrast, builds on my recent work that posits mid-century as a significant historical juncture in foster care provision. Moreover, as little scholarship on foster care examines the experiences or perspectives of children, this paper responds to calls from historians of childhood and considers the history of foster care from the perspective of foster children. (3)

The story of children's experience in foster care can be gleaned from three interrelated and mutually dependent vantage points: 1) the expert literature; 2) foster care caseworkers, and; 3) foster children. Historians interested in child voice inevitably confront the issue of scant source material. Case records from foster care agencies provide unique documentation of children's experience and, although translated by agency caseworkers, child voice. Increasingly used by social historians, social service agency case records further offer a historical window into professional practices, discourses, and the nuances of client-worker interactions. (4) A random sample of 60 case records and all available administrative documents from a Philadelphia-area child welfare agency, the Philadelphia Society for the Protection of Children from Cruelty (PSPCC), for the years 1946-63 as well as Philadelphia city welfare department documents for the same period provide source material for this analysis. While a sample of 60 case records may appear somewhat small, each of the case records offers a lengthy and rich narrative. (5) In order to understand child experience at the PSPCC against the larger landscape of foster care provision, this study also relies on a close reading of 85 purposefully selected scholarly articles appearing in leading social work journals, including Social Service Review, Child Welfare, and The Journal of Social Casework, and influential texts concerning foster care for the period of interest. …

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