The Kindness of Remunerated Strangers

In March I was invited to a Summit, not as the word might imply on Middle-East peace but on the adoption of children, and more specifically the adoption of children in care. It was held at the Coram Museum on the site of the now demolished Foundling Hospital that sheltered children abandoned by their single mothers for nigh on 200 years. I was surprised to be invited, I am very out of touch with this world.

But I came away disappointed. I could see the last vestiges of Labour ‘deliverology’  in which the centre beats the local into doing better, which in this case means adopting more children into care. I worried about the certainty around language like ‘permanency’ that at best is easily misunderstood and at worst lacks any coherent meaning. And I was left craving not only evidence worthy of the massive intrusion into family life that adoption represents, but also some basic facts that help predict the potential of the intervention.

Since the Summit I have been ruminating, talking to experts and reading. This and the four blogs that follow summarise what I found.

The Kindness of Remunerated Strangers

1) From antiquity to the renaissance

In the not too distant past a child was passed through the torno (a hole in the wall) of a Spanish orphanage run by the order of Saint Vincent de Paul. Unlike many given up in this way, this child survived. We know this because his name, assigned to every child taken in by the order, was passed to his great grandchild, my friend, Kintxo Ochotorena y de Paúl (an accent placed above the ‘u’ of Paul gives Spanish identity to the French saint). Since antiquity, abandoned children were referred to as being ‘exposed’ in the sense that the family brought attention to the deserted child so they would be taken up by a family or institution. From this descriptor comes another Spanish name, Expósito, as inherited by Numancia defender Unai Expósito and the Baltimore Orioles catcher Luis Expósito.

With this in mind, when I left the Coram Summit I walked across the road to the Skoob bookstore and with luck found a second hand version of John Boswell’s classic history The Kindness of Strangers. I looked for a paragraph that I remembered from my training. It connects our parochial discussions about adoption to two millennia of tragedy:

“Parents abandoned their offspring in desperation when they were unable to support them, due to poverty or disaster; in shame, when they were unwilling to keep them because of their physical condition or ancestry (e.g. illegitimate or incestuous); in self-interest or the interest of another child, when inheritance or domestic resources would be compromised by another mouth; in hope, when they believed that someone of greater means or higher standing might find them and bring them up in better circumstance; in resignation, when a child was of unwelcome gender or ominous auspices; or in callousness, if they simply could not be bothered with childhood.”

The production line of abandonment has remained constant but the processing has evolved. Some of society’s responses, for example of oblation -adopting children into christianity- or servitude and indenture are now rare. Survival is now taken for granted. Most children entering foundling hospitals in the Middle-ages died within a few years of admission, an outcome possibly only marginally worse than had they been reared at home.

State regulation of the transaction has evolved slowly. There were never many sanctions against sharing children beyond the birth family. It was a necessity and commonplace. Between 10 and 30 per cent of children were in some way adopted by a stranger’s family, in all likelihood during antiquity and almost certainly in late 18th Century urban Europe. Societal ethics of tolerance or mild regulation were gradually codified by the church. As private, philanthropic provision became more common, the state became the ringmaster.

Fostering is a relatively modern addition to the story. The name comes from the Norse foū, meaning to feed or to support. It was codified by the Visigoths in present day Germany referring to children supported in a household who had no legal relation to the householder. The code set fees for the first three years of placement, after which the child would pay for him or herself from wages or would move on into servitude. I suppose today we would classify the idea under payment by results.

Remuneration, however, has not been the reserve of fostering. All forms of exposure of children involve some form of legal and/or financial transaction. I suspect the real kindness of strangers continues below the gaze of church or state in the informal non-exposed arrangements of families who seek neither legal protection nor compensation.

A major development has been the switch from all children to poor children. From antiquity to the Renaissance any child, whatever the means of the family, could be exposed, subject to oblation or even passed into servitude.  Birth produced a ball bouncing long on a roulette wheel before it found a resting point in one of many pockets whose  value was measured in terms of social mobility.  We remember the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, grandchildren of the King of Alba Longa, but not so much the farming family that took them in. (Indeed the myth allows us to ignore the working class prostitute who most likely provided the breast from which the children fed). In an early Viking saga referred to by Boswell a German Earl leaves the child he fathered with his sister in a forest to be watched over by servants. The child is fostered -not adopted- by a childless Danish noble and eventually becomes the King of Denmark, a rare example of a state being founded on the three pillars of incest, abandonment and high quality foster care.

Risks to a healthy upbringing still distribute themselves across the classes but today when we talk about adoption we increasingly talk about the rescue of poor children by the well-off.

2) Recent scratches on the surface of history

From the mid-18th Century onwards, the state’s support for the abandoned poor increasingly took the form of foster care. Where the church retained a strong hold, residential provision remained popular. State care extended beyond children given up forever to those whose parents temporarily could not manage. When the rates of child abuse became apparent in the mid 1960s, an increasing proportion of those in the care of the state were rescued from parents deemed to be dangerous. 

So it came to pass that one pocket on the roulette wheel accommodated three different coloured balls; children given up forever, those given up for a short time and those taken away from reluctant parents. This unsatisfactory mixing, to my mind, explains not only many of the ills of state care but also the folly of those who seek a single solution to those ills. The fact that the pocket is reserved for poor children does nothing to help.

About half a century ago, a common complaint was being made about state care. The grumble originated in the United States, where numbers in care were high and return on investment unclear. The complaint was drift. Children were bobbing around the system with no clear sense of their destiny. Too many were moving frequently from one foster family to another (although probably no more frequently than is the case today). Jane Rowe and Lydia Lambert in their seminal study Children who Wait highlighted the same difficulties in England.

A demonstration project was established in true U.S. style in Oregon in the 1970s. It sensibly introduced a problem solving process for practitioners so that they could gather and use information with greater precision. The work also tried to limit the number of cases a social worker held, so they had sufficient time to think and act effectively. The idea was to get them to make better decisions, quicker. 

So far, so good. There was a problem, drift, the failure to decide, and there was a solution to address that problem. But the Oregon work went further. One mechanism for reducing the caseload was lowering the number of children in care, and that was to be achieved by finding adoptive parents. This transfer of responsibility had several perceived beneficial side effects not least, to use the language of the time, that it provided the child with a respected social status in contrast to the second-class status typical of foster care.

From these origins came the concept of ‘permanency’. Soon the problem solving/reduced caseload part of the solution began to take a lower billing. At the top of the display was ‘a family for life’, which could be the birth family, other family members or friends of the family, strangers remunerated by the state, that is foster parents, or strangers who assumed full legal responsibility, that is adoptive parents.

Legislation was passed in England and Wales in 1975 that allowed for children to be adopted from care. Law was further developed in 2002 to increase the numbers on this track, and also to introduce a new category of stranger care called ‘special guardianship’ that formalised the rights of family members or friends who care for a child that is not their own. (By creating special arrangements for poor children, these developments muddied the settled waters of the Children Act 1989 that provided a single set of orders for all, crossing both private and public law).

From these uncertain beginnings the concept of ‘permanence’ has become fixed. I find it both illogical, and wholly lacking in evidence. Answers to four questions might help to change my mind.

First, what does ‘permanence’ mean? I was born into an orthodox working class family with two parents. When I was three, aspiration took my family to a new town. When I was seven, that aspiration produced another move. At nine, the pressure of upward mobility contributed to my mother’s hospitalisation for mental illness and I was shipped off for some months to strangers in a completely new City. By twelve, a clash of aspirations led my parents to divorce and I returned to live 500 metres from where I started. My still striving father emigrated to Australia, followed soon after my 17th birthday by my mother. Five years later they remarried each other, the only part of the story that bothers me still.

Is this permanence? Is the experience of Kintxo’s father, placed in an orphanage for the first 14 years of life more or less permanent?

Second, what problem is ‘permanence’ trying to solve? It certainly isn’t the drift in decision making that set the United States and England to adopting children in care. It certainly isn’t the impermanence of foster care itself, still, as I will show, the primary source of support for children long separated from birth parents, even if, and it remains an if, it is the most likely of the available options to founder. 

When I trace the logic in the permanence formulation I find: a system problem (of slow decision making) being solved by a perceived yet unproven theory about how to improve children’s health and development (get kids let down by one family into a better family). That might be a good foundation for progress with other people’s children but I wouldn’t accept it for my own.

The remaining two questions I will try to answer in subsequent blogs, namely, if permanence could be clearly defined would we predict it to produce better outcomes? And, if it is advantageous, is it feasible, can it be delivered for many thousands of separated children?