Why thousands of West African children were privately fostered by white families

Toyin Okunuga with her foster grandfather (left) and foster father and grandparents (right).

By ITV News Multimedia Producer Wedaeli Chibelushi

“Pretty baby girl needs a new home” - Nursery World, 1971

From the 1950s to the 1970s, it was not at all uncommon for West African children and babies to be fostered via newspapers and childcare journals. The above advert was placed by a Nigerian mother looking for someone to care for her three-month-old.

In 1968, The Times reported that up to 5,000 West African children were privately fostered in Britain each year. Many of these children were born to students, who following Ghanaian and Nigerian independence (in 1957 and 1960 respectively), began to dominate the UK’s international student population.

These parents often held down jobs alongside their studies. Many didn’t have much time to look after their children, so they made arrangements for private foster care.

During this period, putting a child in the care of others without informing the local authorities was perfectly legal. And so began a phenomenon known - informally - as farming. Thousands of white families were paid by West African parents to care for their children. 

Some experienced issues with identity and racism, while some children had largely positive experiences. On the extreme end of the scale, cases of abuse were widely publicised and 18 African children died in private foster homes between 1961 and 1964.

Most 'farmed' children returned to their families, but until recently, their accounts went largely unrecorded. Privately fostered West Africans have been speaking out over the last few years, particularly after the release of two films on the subject, The Last Tree and Farming.

ITV News spoke to three adults, fostered in the 60s and 70s, about their experiences.

Toyin Okunuga, 48

Toyin with her foster sister as a child (left) and with her former foster parents as an adult (right)

Toyin, a business analyst and inspirational speaker, was born to Nigerian parents in 1972. “People say I’m aging downwards. Before my healing journey, I think I looked older,” she laughs. 

Toyin’s formative years were turbulent. Her parents came to the UK on student visas in the 70s - Toyin’s dad studied electrical engineering while her mother enrolled on a secretarial course.

She says West African parents “would foster us so that they could focus, and almost be at the same level as their white counterparts." 

From two months to eight-years-old, Toyin was cared for by a white family in the village of Ratby, Leicestershire.

Her foster sister Carolyn, then aged nine, happened upon Toyin in the local paper. She begged her mum to respond to the advert. "The rest, as they say, is history!" Toyin says.

She developed an extremely close bond with the family - her foster father and Carolyn have since passed, but Toyin is still in contact with the others. She visited her biological family frequently and didn't experience racism, despite being "the only black child in a village of over 4,000 residents". 

Her private fostering experience was overwhelmingly positive, until it came to an end.

“It was one of the most traumatic times in my life,“ Toyin recalls. She distinctly remembers her foster mum telling her that her parents were coming to pick her up that same day  - she was watching Little House on the Prairie at the time.

  • Toyin shares her views on the former private fostering process

Just over a month later, Toyin was on a ship to Nigeria. Her elderly grandparents were worried they wouldn't see Toyin and her siblings before they passed, so they summoned the family back to their homeland. The move was so sudden that Toyin was unable to say goodbye to her foster grandparents. They died without her seeing them again.

Toyin faced yet more trauma in Nigeria - she was sexually abused from the age of twelve.

Toyin eventually returned to the UK, where she lives with her husband and two children. As an adult, how does she view the former private fostering process?

"My biological mum did a thorough interview, but that wasn’t sufficient. A lot more should've been done," she says.

"Private fostering - it was desperation. There were no checks in place."

Nowadays private foster care is regulated - local authorities must be informed of these arrangements so they can assess the suitability of the carer and offer support.

However, some experts believe this still falls short. Dr John Simmonds from CoramBAAF, an organisation for adoption and fostering professionals, says: "Any placement is likely to require degrees of support and private fostering is likely to have difficulty in accessing this, other than through general services such as health and education."

Michael Ariyo, 42

Michael now lives with his wife and two children in the US.

IT worker and business owner Michael Ariyo also criticizes the ‘farming’ phenomenon - he calls it “worrying” and “disturbing”.

Michael lives in the US with his wife and two children, but was born in London. His parents travelled from Nigeria in the 70s - his mum took up a secretarial course and his dad studied accountancy.

Eight years after the couple arrived, Michael was born. He was fostered from the time he was a few months old up until the age of four, so he doesn’t remember much about his foster family. He knows his carer was a woman in Luton named Margaret Jenkins, but only has one standout memory - that of “being left alone a lot”.

As for going back to his biological family, Michael explains: “It was a bit of a culture shock, because in Luton, at the time, there weren't a lot of black people, so to be transported from there back to London, there was a lot of confusion.”

  • Michael says he previously didn't think his experience was abnormal

Michael has since met West Africans, through work and university, who were fostered in similar circumstances. He said many harboured “a sort of disdain for their parents, they’re angry”.

Michael credits therapy and his move to the US with helping him come to terms with the experience.

Although Michael was able to confide in his therapist, he has been “met with a wall of silence” from his parents when attempting to discuss his experience with them.

“That generation doesn't want to talk about it,” he says.

“It happened on a big scale, but it’s still kept under the carpet. However, a lot of people that were fostered, like myself, are starting to tell their stories.”

Florence Olajide, 58

Florence Olajide was privately fostered in the sixties.

Florence’s family arrived from Nigeria in 1962 and she was fostered a decade earlier than Toyin and Michael were. 

An author and former headteacher, Florence empathises with her parents’ decision to place her in foster care.

“A question that might come to mind was ‘hadn’t they heard of family planning?’,” she considers. 

Florence explains that in her mother’s generation and Yoruba ethnic group, “when you got married, your next milestone was you had kids. Waiting to start a family was unheard of.”

Florence was fostered by two families - the first, who lived in Norfolk, were offering their services via a newspaper advert.

She moved to Norfolk as a baby, but her experience there was short lived. After her foster mother tried to get Florence’s remaining jabs administered, the local authorities noticed that Florence was in Norfolk while her biological parents were in London. A social worker recommended that Florence’s biological parents find foster care closer to them.

“They didn’t frown on the arrangement, rather the distance,” Florence notes.

Thus, she moved to a second family, one recommended by her mother’s best friend.

  • Florence recalls an experience of racism

“I don’t have anything but warm memories of living with that family,” Florence says, remembering her foster mother, who she called ‘nan’. Nan was married to ‘pop’ - a man who’s real name Florence has never known.

During the six years Florence spent with the family, issues of race and identity didn’t “weigh heavily on [her] mind”. However, she recalls a couple of incidents that made her conscious of the fact that she was “different”.

In one instance, she remembers being called a racial slur during an argument with a friend. “I remember coming back to my foster parent and asking her ‘why am I black?’, ‘why am I the only black person for miles’,” Florence says.

She remembers asking whether if she scrubbed my skin, she would be white underneath.

Despite having this disturbing memory, Florence says her biggest struggle was leaving foster care. In the middle of the Nigerian Civil War, she travelled with her biological parents to Nigeria. 

The move was abrupt. Florence’s mother and father had been spooked by a rise in cases where foster families won custody after biological parents expressed a desire to move them to Africa.

“That made parents of my era very wary of how they planned their getaway. I went to my parents for a weekend and never returned,” Florence said.

Florence married and had children in Nigeria, before eventually returning to the UK with her new family.

“It took me a while to find myself,” she says.

“I was into my thirties before I could come to grips with my identity, in terms of it being different things all at once.”

Florence’s memoir, Coconut, will be published in July. Hush to Roar, Toyin’s book, is available now.