Monday, November 16, 2009

Apologies and Orphan Trains

I was surprised to read this story today, from Great Britain and Australia.

Apology for Kids Shipped from Britain to Colonies:

[Australian] Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a historic apology Monday to thousands of impoverished British children shipped to Australia with the promise of a better life, only to suffer abuse and neglect thousands of miles from home.

"We are sorry," Rudd said. "Sorry that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused. Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care. Sorry for the tragedy — the absolute tragedy — of childhoods lost."

The apology comes one day after the British government said Prime Minister Gordon Brown would apologize for child migrant programs that sent as many as 150,000 poor British children as young as 3 to Australia, Canada and other former colonies over three and a half centuries.

The programs, which ended 40 years ago, were intended to provide the children with a new start — and the Empire with a supply of sturdy white workers. But many children ended up in institutions where they were physically and sexually abused, or were sent to work as farm laborers.

As the penal colony of the original thirteen, Georgia no doubt received its share of these kids too.

But the idea of "disappearing" children isn't uniquely European. We had our own ignominious experience with it in the States, in what became known as the Orphan Trains.

Running from the mid-1800's until the 1930's, more than 250,000 American children from east coast cities were put on trains and shipped out west under the auspices of adoption and a "better life," only to suffer the same fate as the kids from Britain and Australia.Many ended up indentured servants and worked in this form of slavery into the early 20th century.

Like their European and Australian counterparts, these kids were mainly poor and immigrant, encouraged to "break completely with their past." Others have noted our modern conception of Foster Care began with these Orphan Trains.

The difference between then and now, of course, is that you'll never get an apology out of anyone in the U.S. Since our practice stopped more than 80 years ago, it's doubtful there is anyone left alive to receive such condolences. More importantly, it wouldn't come from a governmental entity since the U.S. and various state governments basically allowed private, non-profit agencies to do the dirty work for them.

Nevertheless, while the apology may be more symbolic than anything, it's still a recognition that children and juveniles are, in fact, people with standing under the law. Students in delinquency are often surprised to find out that our recognition of them as such is only about 40 years old in the U.S.

Kudos to the Australian and British governments for making the point.

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