April 2021 marks the first ever global Care Experienced History Month, aimed at recognising and commemorating the lives of people who have experienced care in the past. The term ‘Care Experienced’ refers to anyone who is currently, or has been, in the state care system. It encompasses a range of complex care relationships, including fostering, adoption, institutional care, care by wet nurses, or kinship care. In England, forms of state-organised care have existed since at least the seventeenth century with the development of the poor law, but systems of informal kinship, friend or community care have existed for much longer. Nearly 80,000 children were looked after by local authorities in 2019, a number that has steadily increased since the mid 1990s.
Care can be defined as responsibility for a child’s physical needs (food, clothing, shelter), or as an emotional attachment. It can involve day-to-day physical care, or a more abstract acceptance of obligation or love. As historian Linda Oja notes, ‘caring about a child is not the same as caring for a child’, and the exact balance between these priorities has varied between cultures and across time. In eighteenth-century England, it was relatively common for children to spend periods of time away from their birth parents’ home: for breastfeeding, as a strategy to share childcare costs, or for education. In sixteenth and seventeenth-century Ireland, as historian Clodagh Tait has found, fostering was an established form of ‘fictive kinship’ used to build mutually rewarding economic and emotional alliances between families. In West Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sharing the duties of mothering, including breastfeeding, between female members of a community or extended family was a well-established method of childrearing. As these examples show, we must be careful not to essentialise parenthood: the expectations and experiences of parents were not the same across times and places. In various societies over time, therefore, the placement of a child in the long-term care of others has been considered entirely compatible with ideals of parental love and responsibility.
Accessing a wider range of sources is key to asking new questions about the nature and experience of care. Early historians of care focused most on state or institutional provision, due to the reams of paperwork it generated. More recently, historians have begun to connect the histories of family and childhood with concepts of care, examining informal, unpaid care by kin, for example. Historians of the more recent past have used oral history and autobiographies of people who have experienced care to investigate its impact on their sense of identity, and to measure the stigma attached to different types of care. This task is more difficult prior to the nineteenth century due to limited survival of evidence, but letters, diaries, accounts and cultural artefacts such as literature can be used to illuminate the importance of care – particularly fosterage – to medieval and early modern societies.
In some circumstances, the history of care can be one of trauma and secrecy. Parents often went to great lengths to hide a child’s illegitimacy, for example. As historian Deborah Cohen has shown, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illegitimate children were commonly brought up as their grandparent’s child in order to limit stigma. As a result, a child’s exact status is often hidden on state records such as censuses or parish registers. Many fall through the gaps of state registration, requiring historians to piece together evidence of transient childhoods by cross-referencing multiple types of sources. In seeking evidence and writing histories, the voices of Care Experienced people themselves should always be a priority. The perspectives of others can often provide evidence of the mechanics of care – where a child was, for how long, and the reasons why they were placed in care – but cannot indicate its lifelong impact on a child’s sense of identity and belonging. As charities such as Who Cares? Scotland argue, Care Experienced people are too often denied agency and advocacy in the present. It is historians’ responsibility to make sure that we do not replicate these inequalities in the past.
Care Experienced History Month has an important purpose in the present: to show that Care Experienced people have a history, to help build an identity and community, and to aid better understanding of the impact of care on young people’s lives. An interrogation of people’s experiences of care in the past is also vital to understanding much broader questions about the society around them. The history of care as work, for example, provides vital evidence of economic change, and particularly the position of women in the waged economy. Care work was largely left out of early economic histories. As a result, we have a limited understanding of its value, its role in historical processes such as industrialisation, and the ways in which care work was gendered. Care work is particularly difficult to quantify because it is so diverse, including paid and unpaid labour, informal and formal, temporary and permanent arrangements. Care may not be explicitly paid for with money, but could be seen as discharging an obligation of kinship or friendship, as a reciprocal agreement, or in exchange for payments in kind, advice, patronage or future inheritance. These forms of payment would not show up in account books. Recent and ongoing projects such as the Forms of Labour project at the University of Exeter or the Gender and Work project at Uppsala University aim to integrate care into broader histories of work, in part by measuring the time spent on care mentioned in sources from court depositions to diaries.
The history of care is also partly a history of inequality. The question of who should care for children is not a neutral one, but reflects assumptions about class, race and gender. A person’s ability to parent could be greatly constrained by the ideals and expectations of the society around them. The placement of a child in care was a choice for some parents, but not for others. In eighteenth-century England, for example, unmarried parents were assumed to be less able to care for their own children. In this period, children born to mothers of colour and white fathers working in the empire were often sent to be raised by foster families in Britain, due to perceptions that the maternal influence of a woman of colour would damage a child’s future prospects. Poverty could diminish parental agency, and make it very difficult to fulfil the ideals of parenthood. As historian Patricia Crawford has found, officials and philanthropists saw it as the place of the state to step in as ‘civic parents’, through institutions such as the Foundling Hospital or parish workhouses, or through a network of nurses and foster families paid by the parish.
The history of care can provide vital evidence of the impact of these intersectional inequalities. Often, it demonstrates that family background has long been the main arbiter of status and access to social and economic capital. It continues to be so. In 2019, Care Experienced children were four times more likely to be involved in the youth justice system, and four times more likely to have a mental health condition. In 2019, 39% of care leavers aged 19 to 21 were not in employment, education or training, compared with 12% of all young people. Many of these statistics reflect the precarity of care and living arrangements; in 2020, more than 7 in 10 children in care experienced at least one of a change of home, school or social worker in the last year. These contemporary statistics have echoes in the past. My own research has shown that children in care in the eighteenth century were more likely to be poor, and more likely to move around between households, which made it difficult for them to establish a sense of belonging and identity.
Care Experienced people continue to be labelled – stigmatised – as ‘difficult’. As Care Experienced author Kenneth Murray argues, ‘today people still need convincing that children who go through care are shaped by circumstances, many of them outside their control’. History has some power in this. By sharing stories of care from the past, we can highlight structural inequalities, reduce the stigma attached to individuals, and promote compassion and empathy.
Kate Gibson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Manchester. She has published on the history of the family in eighteenth-century England in Past and Present, Cultural and Social History and The Journal of Family History, and is working on her first monograph on illegitimacy in eighteenth-century England. She is currently part of the AHRC-funded project Faith in the Town: Lay Religion, Urbanisation and Industrialisation in England, 1740-1830, and tweets as @KateGibson22.