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Historical Perspectives on the Stigma of Children in Care.

By Dr. Annie Skinner


Children on the street (undated) © The Children's Society

During the latter decades of the nineteenth-century, poor families faced with crises due to poverty, ill-health or misfortune were dependent on a combination of state and voluntary agencies for help. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act restricted state benefits and assessed claimants on a deserving or undeserving basis, forcing people into the workhouse. Therefore, for some parents in dire situations the only option other than the stigmatizing experience of the workhouse, was requesting admission for their child to a child care charitable organisation like the Waifs and Strays Society, (WSS), now The Children’s Society, Dr Banardos or Dr Stephen’s Homes, now Action for Children, who provided residential child care, all established at the end of the 1870s and beginning of the 1880s. A new agency, the Charity Organisation Society, (COS), who had shared aims with the Government and the harsh poor law, was also established. COS members were encouraged to participate in health and welfare organisations to influence policy and practice. The COS, credited as being the first social workers, made home visits to assess claimants in line with the COS policy, ensuring claimants were genuine, to ascertain the causes of poverty and ill- health before giving help.


Whilst working on a project investigating how and why children came into care in the nineteenth century I was struck with the resonance with today. Over the last two decades attitudes towards children in care have come under the spotlight. Stigma was an integral component of the 1834 New Poor Law Amendment Act. Victorian philanthropists contributed to this stigma by blaming parents.[1] Unfortunately, there are still parallels to be drawn between attitudes expressed in the nineteenth century and those in the twenty-first century. Not only because of attitudes towards welfare but also because of attitudes towards vulnerable families who still seem to be seen as second-class citizens. Whilst aspects of stigma are well documented in some areas such as mental health, education, race, and disability, in general terms the history of the stigma of children in care and its relevance today is under-explored. This can be extended to discriminated children and families on the margins of society. Stigma is an attitude or belief, and discrimination is the outcome by others holding those attitudes or beliefs. However, being disadvantaged can lead to social exclusion and subsequently stigmatization. This post looks at how the stigma of care evolved during the nineteenth century and how this has remained.


From my research on the experiences of children in care in the nineteenth century I suggest there are three types of stigma particularly pertinent to these children and families on the margins of society, then and today. Firstly, Structural Stigma relates to institutional policies based on stigmatizing attitudes. Secondly, Public Stigma reflects the predominant opinions society has about people with a certain characteristic. Negative stereotypes of such people or groups are often portrayed in the media with limited information, which can reinforce and influence adverse public perceptions. And thirdly, Associative Stigma which focusses on people with connections to someone with a characteristic regarded as unfavourable. In this instance it is related to society’s view of parents which is inherited by the child.


People in dire straits resorting to charity or the Poor Law were considered improvident regardless of their circumstances, as they had not taken precautions to avoid such a situation. Incorporated into child welfare legislation and within the voluntary charitable movements, such as the COS, were expectations of changed behavior, from either child or adult, as a result of intervention. In practice, if considered deserving a claimant was expected to make lifestyle changes in line with COS philosophy. Failure to do so resulted in the withdrawal of COS help and the family were left with limited options to cope and a fear of admission to the workhouse. Middle-class philanthropists with little understanding of working-class life attributed their values to their own experiences and expectations of childhood and family life. Amongst families who requested COS help were lone parents, often recently bereaved. Widowed fathers with young children needed childcare to continue in employment; and widowed mothers usually without skills, had to find employment which was usually low paid. Lone mothers found themselves in impossible conditions with children to support and little employment opportunities. Regular employment was considered preferable to voluntarily relinquishing a child to care by the authorities, as institutions considered parents unable to work and look after their children were stigmatised as ‘failing as a parent’. For this reason some widowed fathers had left their children in the care of local women as they had to work away from home, which were not always suitable.


When arrangements broke down for poor families the authorities had the power to commit children to care. Several Industrial Schools Acts were introduced from 1857 onwards, each giving increasing power to the state. Children, as young as two or three, appeared in court and were charged: of being in the company of prostitutes, being neglected or abused, not having proper guardianship, larceny, stealing, or truanting, being out of control or committing an offence.[2] The defendant, the child, did not have legal representation; and parents did not usually have legal representation either. Court Orders were issued, the child was committed to care in an industrial school, until they were 16 years of age and parental rights were removed. The press were allowed to report the cases and gave the children’s details, and members of the public were able to attend the hearing. In 1883, the WSS established several industrial schools, and one of their major concerns was to provide accommodation for girls at risk of immorality. This morality was defined by the establishment and created stigmatization of lone mothers and illegitimacy.


Children were removed from their families, criminalised and incarcerated. The state held the firm view that most parents’ lifestyles were responsible for their children’s situation and removal avoided children repeating their parents’ behaviour. Case notes of children committed to the WSS industrial schools reveal how children came to be committed. Many were stealing or begging or destitute, others were living in extreme poverty, or had been abandoned by their parents, or neglected. In these circumstances, children were so desperate for food and money and starving like James who was aged seven who was found under a hedge semi-naked in ‘a frightfully neglected condition’. There were occasions when children were sent out to beg or steal by their parents. Children were blamed, punished, and stigmatised for their parents’ behaviour.

Working parents had problems supervising their children during working hours, as was the case in Lena’s situation. Lena’s widowed mother worked as a nurse and whilst she was at work her twelve-year-old daughter was getting into mischief. Nine-year-old Billy’s father chained his son to the bedstead when he went to work as he constantly went wandering. One mother locked her children in a room whilst she was working. Poverty, lack of employment opportunities and affordable housing made it impossible to change their circumstances. Mary’s lone mother tried unsuccessfully to earn a living but was so poor she was frequently admitted to the workhouse. After she left the workhouse, she was only able to afford a place in a common lodging house, considered inappropriate by the authorities as they were crowded, unhealthy houses, accommodating insalubrious characters, were notorious places for iniquity, but for poor people living in lodging houses was better than living in the workhouse. After failing to find alternative accommodation to heed the police warning not to let her children live in houses with ‘loose women’ who lived in these houses Mary was removed from her mother. These examples show the minimal choices available for poor parents and the resulting stigmatization for being poor.


Derogatory descriptions of the children with racial undertones were used like ‘Street Arabs’, ‘English Kafirs’, or they were described as ‘human vermin’ or savages. Important influential people condoned and perpetuated these attitudes. Language used by the authorities and charitable organisations emerged reinforcing stereotypes of poor children and their parents. This extract by Dr Barnardo in the organisation’s journal represents some of the views held by the authorities: The rapid spread of (socialist and nihilist) principles that would subvert orderly government and banish the Bible from the world is not a sign of the times to regard with composure…Every boy rescued from the gutter is one dangerous man the less;[3] and similarly the publication of Child of the English Savage, co-authored by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and Benjamin Waugh who founded the NSPCC. Miss Rye, an influential woman in child emigration described a child as such in a letter to the WSS: ‘It would be both cruel and wrong to send the girl abroad as she is rather more than an animal than any other girl I have ever had to deal with and is also not quite right in the mind’ is an example of the derogatory language used by those working with children. Press reports covering cases from committal hearings used headlines such as ‘A BROTHEL -UNNATURAL MOTHER’, and ‘SERIOUS ALLEGATIONS AGAINST A MARRIED WOMAN’. and reported magistrate’s derogatory comments too. The establishment’s narrative assumes that children will repeat parental behaviour; and in parallel legitimizes the use of derogatory language for marginalized parents and children.


Fast forward to the end of the Poor Law, the end of the Second World War to the inception of the welfare state introduced in 1948. During this transition, some former staff in health and welfare departments remained in post as practitioners or administrators. Regardless of the new welfare state philosophy and policy, an immediate change of attitudes towards children in care and families needing help would have been challenging. Inherited attitudes associated with the deserving and underserving poor had dominated welfare provision for over 120 years. But by the late 1960s and 1970s shifts towards changing attitudes and practice were emerging. Although child care legislation still retained some of the nineteenth century punitive clauses towards children until the implementation of the Children Act in 1989.


Following budget cuts in the mid 1970s restrictions were made in public sector services including housing, education, and welfare. The gaps between rich and poor widened as politicians cut in services. In the 1980s there was a shift in attitudes towards lone parents that was reminiscent of those in the nineteenth century towards illegitimacy and effectively determining between the deserving and undeserving. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher suggested that ‘young women were getting pregnant to jump the housing queue’. This was a common perception during the time, that reinforced societal beliefs that lone mothers were of a bad character. And in 1995 our future prime minister Boris Johnson wrote in the Spectator ‘Single mothers were raising a generation of ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children.’ The tone of this statement sounds similar to a comment in five-year-old John’s case notes in 1889: ‘Illegitimate child ‘found begging and there is reason to think the boy’s mother belongs to the class of unfortunates and certainly he was living amongst immoral surroundings.’ Negative attitudes towards young mothers continued into adult life with expectations young care experienced mothers would repeat the life cycle and were stigmatised with ‘systematic and often relentless scrutiny and surveillance’,[4] strongly suggesting the association of parental behaviour. Care leavers reflect on how they have been stigmatised as children, but social worker and other associated meetings marked them out as different. Just like children in the nineteenth century comments were made about their past and assumptions made about their care history. One care leaver was asked during an interview ‘what had they done to get put into care?’ Another care leaver working in social care was told people would think she was unable to be unbiased in her work due to her care experience.

At the beginning of the 21st century, child sexual exploitation across the country was making headlines in many cities. Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) are held when a child dies or is seriously harmed through abuse or neglect, to identify ways organisations and local professionals can improve ways of safeguarding children. Several high-profile Serious Case Reviews held on Child Sexual Exploitation unpicked the failings of local authorities.[5] Their conclusions determine the incompetent and uncaring political and professional leadership as well as a desire to restrict funding for looked after children. Reports from Serious Case Reviews suggest that children were making lifestyle choices to become prostitutes and drug addicts. Children were effectively blamed for their situation. Serious Case Reviews exposed negative attitudes towards expenditure for children in care and collective failures of political and officer leadership. At the forefront of institutional stigma is the child in care and the care leaver. The child, dependent on the corporate parent for their upbringing, is subjected to determined budgets and protocol. Whilst social workers may want to offer more help in attempts for children to remain at home, or negotiate for improved housing, educational needs, or more income, the family may not be eligible for these services. This exemplifies how structural stigma creates an unequal system that leads to disadvantage and often public stigmatisation.


When I worked as a social worker from the mid 1970s until the early 1990s, I initially worked in an environment that was able to provide different forms of help on a preventive basis for struggling families. Gradually this changed as did policy and practice. There was less available help in preventive care. Eligibility criteria for help reached a higher threshold and there was pressure to close cases. This experience as a social worker informed my research and made me want to look at care in the nineteenth century from a child centred lens. Today one of the frontline scandals about children in care concerns unregulated residential placements. Between 2018-19 there were 660 (5%) looked after children placed in independent or in semi-independent living accommodation who were under the age of 16 when their placement started. Children placed in these properties have described the difficulties of having to reside with drug dealers, trying to study, financial problems, threats of violence, fear, and other aspects of being alone trying to negotiate independent living without support. These conditions for children to live in are unacceptable and paradoxically if a parent was responsible for allowing their child to live in these circumstances there would be possible grounds for removal. Yet the corporate parent sanctioned this arrangement. It is now illegal. We now know that 29 care leavers accommodated in unregulated accommodation have tragically died in the last few years.[6] On June 14 (2023) Care leavers presented a petition to Downing Street requesting that being in care be determined as a protected characteristic, so it becomes the law to consider the discrimination faced by those people when making new policies. The first step was convincing the Care Review in England to adopt the recommendation to give it credibility and get it on the agenda for Government. Terry Galloway, one of the Experts by Experience, is now travelling around the UK getting councils to adopt the motion and slowly building momentum. Surely the fact this had to be raised by care leavers themselves, demonstrates the lack of understanding and stigmatisation of care leavers today.



Dr. Annie Skinner is a social historian based at Oxford Brookes University where she completed her PhD in History. Before moving into historical research she worked as a social worker with children and families and taught on the social work course. Her published work has focused on voluntary organisations’ contribution to health and social care in the nineteenth century. Annie Skinner’s research concentrates on finding the hidden, unheard and often silent voices behind these social histories.


Behind Closed Doors: Hidden Histories of Children Committed to Care During the late Nineteenth Century(1882-1899) (Oxford, Peter Lang 2021).




[1] Colton, M, Drakeford, M, Roberts, S, Scholte, E, Casas, F and Williams, M, ‘Social workers, parents and stigma’, Child and Family Social Work, 2 (1997) 247-257. [2] For more details on the lives of children committed to care, see Annie Skinner, Behind Closed Doors: Hidden Histories of Children Committed to Care During the late Nineteenth Century (1882-1899) (Oxford, Peter Lang 2021). [3] ‘The Dangerous Classes,’ Night and Day (1879) Dr Barnardos’ magazine. [4] Deborah Rutman, Susan Strega, Marilyn Callahan, Lena Dominelli, ‘Undeserving’ mothers? Practitioners’ experiences working with young mothers in/from care, Child and Family Social Work, 7/3, (2002) https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2206.2002.00244.x [5] See Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997-2013, Alexis Jay, 21 August 2014, page 1; The Independent, 27 August 2014, page 6; Serious Case Review into Child Sexual Exploitation in Oxfordshire, 26 February 2015, page 44. [6] Carolyne Willow, ‘Serious Harms in Care Report to Remain Unpublished’, Article 39, 9 June 2022. Article 39 is a charity Fighting for Children’s Rights in Institutional Settings.

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