Farmed: why were so many Black children fostered by white families in the UK?

Kemi Martins’ foster mother used to tell her a story about her childhood; a story that helped explain what it was like to be the white English parent of a Black African child. Martins was a baby when it happened, so it would have been in the early 1970s. Her foster mum was pushing her in a pram through Canvey Island, the blustery Essex seaside settlement where she lived with her other foster siblings, when she spotted a mirrored version of herself approaching. Another white woman; another gurgling, Black baby in a pushchair.

There was a nervous, excited flash of recognition, like two VW Campervan drivers waving awkward hand signals at each other on the motorway. “This other woman apparently went: ‘Ooh, you’ve got one as well,’” said Martins, with a laugh, telling me the story half a century later. “And then she said: ‘What do you feed yours?’” Martins (not her real name) left a beat, raised an eyebrow. “And my foster mum said: ‘Well, they just have the same food that we have.’ To which this woman said: ‘Oh, I just cook boiled rice for mine. That’s all they have.’” There was another careful pause, a disbelieving chuckle. “Needless to say, my foster mum was incredulous. And she sent this woman off with a bit of a flea in her ear about how disgusting it was – [that] you could just give your kids boiled rice all the time. But it was quite interesting to hear that story, given that my fostering experience was so positive.”

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Written by Catherine Turner