The Problems with the ‘Wrong’ Kind of Childhood: Oral History Interview with People Who Grew up in Public Care

Birgitte Søland, The Ohio State University

In the twentieth century hundreds of thousands of American children grew up outside their natal families. In situations where parents were dead, absent, unable or unwilling to take care of their offspring, children were typically placed in orphanage or foster care. As public ‘charges’, these children encountered the American welfare system and its changing policies across the century, and their experiences therefore offer important information about the impact of social policies. Yet scholars interested in capturing the experiences of these children through oral history interviews, encounter a number of problems. First, identifying such individuals can be difficult. Secondly, if identified, many former orphanage or foster care children are unwilling to speak about their past. And finally, even individuals willing to be interviewed, typically have strong agendas when telling their life story. Most importantly, they are keenly aware of having had a non-normative, or, as they see it, a ‘wrong’ kind of childhood. Equally aware of the significance ascribed in twentieth-century culture to the significance of childhood experience for adult development, their recollections are typically filtered through defensive layers of reasons and reasoning. This paper takes its point of departure in more than 200 oral history interviews with former orphanage and foster care children, exploring the methodological challenges in using oral history interviews to investigate their experiences.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 89. Children’s Navigation of Institutions and Institutionalization