Today (30th April 2021) is the first international Day of Remembrance for Care Experienced People.
Today’s remembrance day is the culmination of the first Care Experienced History Month, a series of awareness-raising events by organizations advocating for those who have experienced care recently and in the past. A series of online talks and tweet threads have today been marking the diverse histories of those who experienced care in the past.
The broader history of care-experienced people is one that encompasses a range of concepts, practices and institutions. Care in the past took various forms. Some were formally recognised by the state or religious organizations and others more informal community-based responses. Depending on the time period, cared-for vulnerable adults and children could be fostered or ‘boarded out’ into the homes of family, friends or complete strangers. They could be sent to live in residential schools and children’s homes, hospitals, day centres and other educational establishments. They could experience forced migration and labour.
For some, their experience of entering care was one of safety, friendship and support.
For others though, the care experience was also one of loneliness, stigma, and exploitation.
The event is of great interest to me as I am a historian of the social history of poverty and health, life-experiences very much intertwined with the history of state welfare and care.
Days of reflection can encourage us to think about how we can uncover the experiences of the most vulnerable in society using the (sometimes limited) sources available to us, and how we can help others to learn from these historical experiences.
We have lots of records relating to the historical experience of care in the UK. Some survived in large numbers, such as educational records, local government records, and charities’ accounts.
But there are significant limits on what these can tell us.
It is not uncommon for the voices of care-experienced children and young adults to be almost completely absent from these records. Although the children’s actions and places of residence were frequently recorded, their opinions about their situations were not.
Take the case 11-year old Jane Manerell, a poor child apprenticed to live and work with the Frazier family in central London in the 1730s. The apprenticeship was organized by the parish Overseers of the Poor, a small group of local government officeholders with legal responsibility for the poor in their area. We don’t know where Jane lived before this. It could have been with her family, on the streets or in the local residential workhouse.
The situation did not last. The Fraziers took the Overseers to court to get Jane removed from their home. Jane was accused of being ‘naturally inclined to pilser [pilfer] and Steal’, causing significant economic problems for the Frazier family. They had taken Jane on as they had been told that she was ‘an honest; Sober and Well meaning Child and fit for your …. Employ’. This final statement makes it clear. Jane was not a member of the family and was not likely to be regarded as one. She was a servant subject to the terms of a contract she did not make.
Children like Jane were viewed as problems by their society. Isolated and marginalized by their poverty and lack of family, they were vulnerable to exploitation. We don’t know why Jane stole things, or even if she actually did. We don’t know how she felt about being at the Fraziers. All the records we have about her life relate to concerns about who would pay for the cost of her housing, where she would work, and who had ultimate responsibility for her behaviour.
I wish I could say that this was no longer the case.
Sadly, global statistics suggest that parts of Jane’s experience have not been consigned completely to the history books, even if the eighteenth-century laws she lived under have.
Nearly 1 in 10 children globally is thought to be subject to child labour. Economic hardship, the illness or death of a caregiver, conflict, humanitarian disasters and weak child protection networks mean an estimated 152 million children labour.
UNICEF’s ‘Children in Alternative Care’ programme further estimates that around 2.7 million children live in institutional care. And that figure is likely to be an under-estimate due to challenges in record keeping. These children are recognised as being, in the words of UNICEF ‘at risk of physical, emotional and social harm’.
The International Day of Remembrance for Care Experienced People invites us to reflect and remember the experiences of those who lived, or have living, in all forms of care.