Lost Kids: Vulnerable Children and Youth in Twentieth-Century Canada and the United States
reviewed by Amelia Curran - December 13, 2010
Title: Lost Kids: Vulnerable Children and Youth in Twentieth-Century Canada and the United States
Author(s): Mona Gleason, Tamar Myers, Leslie Paris, and Veronica Strong-Boag (eds.)
Publisher: University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver
ISBN: 0774816864, Pages: 258, Year: 2009
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Positioned at the fault line of the social reform movements for children, Lost Kids: Vulnerable Children and Youth in Twentieth-Century Canada and the United States takes as its focus children and adolescents who have, for a variety of reasons, received fewer benefits from the modern sentimentalization of childhood (p. 1) and continue to experience inequalities. Yet, this volume does more than highlight the plights of marginalized children. When the editors state in their introduction that children and youth occupy important social and political roles, even as they sleep in their cribs or hang out on street corners (p. 1), they intimate that a critical study of children and youth cannot succeed without situating the experiences, actions, and struggles of young people within the broader social and historical processes processes that shape the very politics of identity for young people.
The goal of this book is to locate lost children through exploration into how debates regarding the wellbeing of children conceptualize disadvantaged and vulnerable children, and in turn how these conceptualizations impact the lives of youth. This is achieved through research into the ways children who deviate from mainstream notions of gender, class, race, and ability were, and continue to be, denied the benefits that child-saving efforts from the nineteenth century onward aimed to provide. In this sense, Lost Kids reframes the more conventional approach that asks what the state of youth today tells us about our future, by instead questioning what history tell us about the inequalities youth face today. Shifting the focus onto the processes by which young people are categorized and conceptualized allows for a more nuanced analysis of the often contradictory outcomes of policies and interventions directed at this group and makes this volume a valuable addition to critical youth studies.
The essays, which draw on feminist theory, critical race studies, and postcolonial studies, are organized into five parts based mainly on their empirical focus. The first section explores adoption, care, and fostering institutions and offers an excellent example of the dualistic construction of youth that the editors aim to problematize. In this section, Karen Dubinsky situates the rescue versus kidnap discourse of interracial adoption of black and Aboriginal children in Canada within a broader context of the symbolic power of children to mediate the political interests of adults in society, and warns of the inherent instabilities of using symbolic children to gauge, illuminate, and solve adult social problems (p. 29). Similarly cautious of idealized dualistic constructions, Veronica Strong-Boag studies how changing conceptions of disability affected the ways children with disabilities were cared for. Through skillful analysis, she repositions the controversial institutionalization versus family-based care debate by situating the challenges associated with both forms of care within the larger framework of enduring notions of normality. Strong-Boag suggests that while human rights movements benefitted many children, they also sharpened the boundary between normal and abnormal based on perceptions of who could or could not be helped through processes of inclusion -- a boundary that adversely affected some young people with disabilities, especially when disability intersects with racist, classist, or gendered prejudice. This section exemplifies how Lost Kids integrates concerns with state institutions, systems of care, and family three key interrelated issues for youth studies, according to the editors.
Section Two calls into question the construction of adolescence through analyses of how law, experts, and institutions act to categorize certain groups of adolescents as problematic. William Bush uses juvenile justice records to show how race affected the moral panics over teenagers and their subsequent legal treatment in the American South in the 1950s. Although gentler juvenile justice provisions were available, black adolescent inmates were unable to access them, a decision that rendered their adolescence invisible. Tamara Myers adds to this discussion an analysis of curfew laws that invoked the conceptualization of adolescents as simultaneously in need of protection and posing a danger to society. Myers suggests that the construction of youth as either innocent or dangerous diverted attention away from changing structural conditions that, for example, necessitated that young people work at night. This section illustrates how varying narratives of adolescence can change the way this group is governed.
The third section of this book builds on contributions from earlier sections by exploring how medical technologies have shifted the construction of healthy youth. For example, studying how the increasing concern with moral health was used to shape young bodies within a dominant mold, Denyse Baillargeon examines hospitals roles in normalizing children from the working classes in line with traditional gendered and religious ideals through recreational activities while in care. Mona Gleason adds to this section by using the oral histories of adults who spent time in hospitals as children to contest the narratives found in staff medical writings. Gleason writes, The embodied management of children, particularly marginalized children, and their varied responses to this management, forged, sustained, and challenged hierarchies and social divisions based on class, race and gender (p. 137). This work reminds us that while disadvantaged youth were often subject to moral discipline, not all were passive recipients of the developing technologies of regulation. While Gleason is not the only author to draw on the voices of youth from the historical record, this volume does tend to pay less attention to the ways youth themselves are implicated in their own constructions and counter-constructions; finding lost youth through their own voices could make for a compelling future edition.
In Section Four, an emphasis on the politics of families contributes to feminist scholarship by continuing to correct the paucity of research on the domestic sphere within youth studies. Indeed, this well-conceptualized section not only addresses the structural difficulties some families and youth experience, it also explores the ways underlying normative assumptions of family affect young peoples access to benefits. Molly Ladd-Taylor asserts that changing notions of the hopeless child correspond with changing standards of what a normal family is. Support for children in the 1910s, for example, was given to those who fit the criteria of middle-class standards: children in suitable homes, in which the mother was judged by social workers to be a good housekeeper, sexually respectable, and capable of controlling her children (p. 159). Cindy Baldassi, Susan Boyd, and Fiona Kelly follow this theme within a legal context through their consideration of the best interest of the child within court cases. The authors argue that because judges are given interpretive flexibility in the decision making of this determination, the perceived value of certain family forms may be over emphasized and important factors in the lives of marginalized children, such as poverty or racism, may be overlooked (p. 192). Children within non-normative families, such as those headed by lesbian parents, may be disadvantaged by ideological assumptions about family structure based on pro-father and pro-access norms.
The final section of this book concerns the role government plays in more current issues of inequality for young people. Wendy Frisby, Ted Alexander, and Janna Taylor situate declining state support for local recreational facilities within a neoliberal context that favors market freedom and cost recovery efforts. Marginalized youth are positioned as unworthy of recreation because publicly funded leisure is not congruent with market-based logics. In order to promote social inclusion and greater social justice, a renewed commitment from local governments to provide public recreation that reflects the diversity of local neighborhoods is needed. This essay is an important reminder that while social justice for young people may need to engage at a political level, it is not successful until it filters down in positive and constructive ways into the everyday lives of children this entails equal access to care, support, and security, but also to fun, play, and recreation.
Lost Kids challenges the cultural narratives that have come to wield so much power in the lived conditions of marginalized youth. Dichotomous constructions of childhood and youth use race, class, gender, and disability to invoke simultaneously images of hope for, and fear of, the future; normal and abnormal characteristics or families; or healthy and unhealthy bodies and minds. By bringing attention to these dividing practices, the editors succeed in helping the reader find the individual child that gets lost in these often adult-motivated strategies of redemption, rescuing, and protection. With sufficient regard for the positive outcomes that policies and legislative measures from this era have offered youth, this collection presents an astute warning that the good intentions of well meaning adults need to be firmly located in the real lives of all boys and girls.
Grounded in local and historical contexts, the essays in Lost Kids offer relevant and timely insight into contemporary concerns about young people, broadening the understandings of youth within academic disciplines. Yet, this volume would be particularly rewarding for those working within the areas of policy creation and implementation, and could offer challenging new criteria for the assessment of programming. However, before policies that affect the health, wellbeing, and political inclusion of youth can be effectively employed, the underlying frameworks by which youth are categorized, evaluated, and understood must first be rigorously (re)examined.