The Treatment of Neglected Children in American History
The Treatment of Neglected Children In American History
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
Written November 3, 2008
The history of child welfare for neglected and dependent children in the United States traces its roots to Elizabethan Poor Laws from the 1600’s and British common law that came to America via the colonists. Up until the 1800’s, abandoned and neglected children were placed in workhouses, and sold into indentured servitude or industrial labor, alongside destitute adults. Poor children often also ended up in poorhouses/almshouses alongside adults. In Robert L. Geiser’s book, The Illusion of Caring, (1973: Beacon Press, Boston), he says in 1795, there were 622 paupers in the New York City Almshouse and 259 of them, over 40 percent, were children under the age of nine. He goes on to write, “In 1821, in the Boston Almshouse were 78 sick persons, 77 children, 9 maniacs and idiots, and 155 unclassified inmates, mostly old and decrepit…In 1834, the Boston Almshouse (originally intended to be a workhouse for the able-bodied poor) now contained 134 sick persons, 132 children (104 of school age and 28 at nurse), and a distressing 61 persons insane or idiotic…” (p. 152). Eventually public outrage over conditions for poor children in adult work and poverty institutions removed children into specialized child institutions, which eventually gave way to a foster care revolution, ushered in by Charles Loring Brace, in the mid-1840’s. The 1800’s saw an economic depression, and the U.S. government began getting involved in child welfare, in addition to existing religious and private organizations devoted to the cause for differing reasons. By the mid-1900’s, foster care had begun to replace institutional care for dependent children. Yet even in 2008, we are experiencing what some call a “broken foster care system,” with children dying in foster care regularly, without proper state supervision. Hundreds of thousands of children have gone through American child institutions and foster care placements. The problem of what to do with abandoned, impoverished children is one as old as America herself.
The Elizabethan Poor Laws from the 1600’s have been highly influential in the treatment of poor persons in American history. These Poor Laws differentiated between the “worthy poor” and the “unworthy poor” and instituted different civil remedies for both. The Poor Laws established a residency requirement for aid to the poor. Poor people had to have lived in a community for at least three years to elicit aid from it, and if a person was found vagrant in a community he had not lived in for three years, they could ship him off to any place he had lived for three years at some time in the past, for that community to take care of. The remnants of this are seen in the need to establish “residency” to receive state “welfare” and private aid today in 2008.
The Poor Laws of 1601 helped establish poorhouses and workhouses in England and the future United States territories, to both punish the “idler” and to help the “worthy poor.” Those considered the “worthy poor” were the ill, crippled, insane, aged, etc. The “unworthy poor” were those considered “able-bodied” yet “unwilling” to work. Eventually, due to high unemployment rates, a third category was introduced; the “unemployed poor.” Almshouses or poorhouses and hospitals were set up for the worthy poor. “For the unemployed but willing to work, there was the workhouse…Finally, those who would not work (the unworthy poor, the able-bodied poor, sturdy beggars, or the valiant rogues, as they were also called), there was the House of Corrections. This was really more of a jail for misdemeanors where the inmates were forced to work.” (Geiser, pp. 150-151). Our current “Department of Corrections” has origins in workhouses and the House of Corrections.
In the 1600’s, as the Poor Laws were coming out of England, British companies were
simultaneously selling children from British almshouses and streets to American businessmen as cheap labor. “In 1619-1620, the Virginia Company of London recruited in the almshouses and among the poor of London children to strengthen and increase its settlement in the New World. A hundred children over twelve years of age were sent the first year, but a number of them died on that long and difficult trip. In 1627, ships left England with 1500 children, bound for Virginia. The company saw the children as a source of cheap labor, while England saw a way of ridding itself of dependents who otherwise would be a burden on the local parishes.” (Geiser, p. 138).
Geiser also says, “the mother country of England didn’t help the natural orphan problem in the colonies by its practice of scouring the streets of English cities for homeless children and shipping them off to America.” (Geiser, p. 138). In 1654, the Dutch East Indian Company “sought to increase the population of New Amsterdam (New York City) by sending several hundred children to the colony from the almshouses of Dutch cities.” (Geiser, p. 146).
In this way, indentured servitude, and industrial labor began to swallow up America’s poor youth. Children from poverty backgrounds were shipped to America from around the world, and left here, with “bosses” they were sold to, as working chattel. Up until the 1800’s, there were primarily three types of child protection in America. “The most important was indenture and apprenticeship. The second method was to maintain children in the American versions of the almshouses. Lastly, there were limited amounts of outdoor (home) relief.” (Geiser, p. 146).
The practice of “indenturing” poor children into work contracts as minors was practiced in England prior to English colonists coming to America. “Binding children out” to indentured positions was a way that colonists dealt with orphans and other poor children, as well as infants.
“Once the colonies were established, indenture became a method of dealing with the children of colonists who had been orphaned, neglected, or who were illegitimate or ill-stricken. Shortly after the founding of the colony in Massachusetts, for example, the first child was placed out by public authority. The year was 1636 and the child’s name was Benjamin Eaton. He was probably 7 years old at the time…” (Geiser, p. 147).
Parents could indenture or bind their own children out from any age until adulthood, and
sometimes the state forced parents of neglected children to sell them into indentured positions, as well. In New York City, in 1725, there are records of an 18 month old being bound out as an indentured servant, and in 1726, New York City records show the indentured servitude of a four year old. (Geiser, p. 148).
Typical indentured child contracts included the length of the indentured service, the date the child was free, there was usually an education or training clause, and lastly, there was a list of what was due the child once his indentured term was through. Sometimes there were also sobriety, chastity, and confidentiality clauses. Boys were most often indentured until age 21, and females were indentured most often to age 18 or until married. The most fortunate of indentured servant minors were invited to live in the colonies they were indentured in, practicing the trades they were raised with, while others were run out of town as potential competition for their master once trained and of majority age, quickly replaced by a new indentured child. “In Dutchess County, in New York, in the late 1700’s, boys received a beaver hat, a new Bible, and 20 pounds of York money in cattle or sheep. The girls also received a new Bible plus 30 pounds of good
geese feathers.” (Geiser, p. 149). The indentured servant system as applied to children had far less to do with job training and more to do with a cheap labor force. “Children as young as 3 years old were being indentured out and, when they became free, they were lucky if they got one suit of clothes and five dollars for all those years of work.” (Geiser, p. 150). ). In Timothy A. Hacsi’s 1997 book, Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MASS.), he writes, “Two factors prompted orphan asylums to shift away from indenturing children to placing them out. The first was the growing recognition that childhood was a separate, and distinct, phase of life and that children should not be overworked at an early age. In the late 19th century, middle-class society was increasingly coming to view children as emotionally valuable rather than as economic assets.” (p. 137).
“Up until the latter part of the 19th century, the almshouse was the principal place for care of children in America, as it had also been in England.” (Geiser, p. 150). The first almshouse in America was built by the Dutch in New York City in 1652. (Geist, p. 150). Boston built an almshouse in 1660, Virginia had workhouses for poor children in 1668, and Rhode Island built an almshouse for children in 1723. New York finished its almshouse in 1736, which included an infirmary area, which grew into the oldest public hospital in the country, Bellevue Hospital. In 1743, Massachusetts supported joint community poorhouses and Philadelphia built its almshouse in 1767, and a poor farm in 1773. By 1800, both Philadelphia and New York City were building larger almshouses. Maryland set up an almshouse in 1768, and Delaware had an almshouse by 1823. (Geiser, pp. 151-152). “If you were a citizen of New York City in 1750, you could read in your newspaper notices to the effect that the almshouse had two children, boys eight and ten, waiting for suitable apprenticeships. In 1794, a total of 94 children were bound out from the New York Almshouse.” (Geiser, p. 153).
Almshouses were not safe or sane places for children, yet children constituted a majority of all almshouse populations.
“The plight of children who lived in the almshouses was far from happy. There was no separation of persons by age, sex, or condition. The old, sick, blinded, crippled, epileptics, idiots, children, unmarried mothers, tramps, criminals, prostitutes, and the insane all intermingled. The last category often comprised ¼ - ½ of the total population…The almshouses were a human scrap heap. The building was often old and in poor repair. Beds were a pile of straw on the floor and sanitary conditions were terrible and sanitary facilities were lacking. It is no wonder the children who lived there were described as “scrawny, sore-eyed examples of unnecessary wretchedness.” The “sore-eyed” is a reference to the frequent eye infections that were a scourge in both English and American almshouses….The most likely source of eye infections for children in almshouses was probably venereal disease. One observer describes children being mixed in the almshouse with the “loathsome syphlytic.” Sharing the same bed with infected adults and other close physical contacts resulted in the infection of the child.” (Geiser, pp. 153-154).
The Industrial Revolution quickly utilized poor children as cheap labor in America, often placating their critics with a claim of “job training” for the indigent child, or feigned “apprenticeships.” “Indenture gradually fell into disfavor as other methods of child care developed, but it was still around as recently as the beginning of this century. It had changed its character to become “on the job training” as part of trade schools…” (Geiser, p. 150). It is worthy of note that when these types of “apprenticeships” for children were finally condemned by society, the institution to pick up their slack was the “trade school.” Trade schools came out of workhouse and indentured servant roots, not from the loins of academia.
By the end of the 1700’s, a public concern had grown regarding the skyrocketing child
mortality rates in almshouses and workhouses. “The death rates for children in almshouses began to climb. In some places, admission of children under a year of age to the almshouse was tantamount to signing their death certificate. Between 80 – 90 percent of all the foundlings sent to the Massachusetts almshouse at Tewksbury died there. Death rates ran equally high in other institutions where large numbers of children, with or without adults, were gathered together….At the Foundling’s Hospital on Ward’s Island in New York City, a total of 1,527 children were received during eleven months of 1868. One year later, all but 80 of these children were dead.” (Geiser, p. 154).
By the 1700’s, private organizations and groups began placing children in foster care, or “outdoor/home relief.” In 1729, the Ursuline nuns in New Orleans, began the first institution in this country centered on outdoor relief/home placement for impoverished children. They had originally begun as a religious school for poor girls, but after personal tragedies left some of their community orphans, they began to care for orphans and other neglected children. The motivation of the nuns was not to sell the children into industrial labor, but to actually get them family housing. In 1740, the Bethesda House of Mercy was created as an orphanage, yet the children were “apprenticed out” from here as well. In 1790, the first publicly funded orphanage is founded in South Carolina; the Charleston Orphan House. This institution also “boarded out” orphan and neglected children in private homes, “the first use of boarding home care in the United States.” (Geiser, pp. 156-157 “Prior to the mid-1850’s, children at the Charleston Orphan House apparently slept on “vermin-infested wooden cots.” A few years before the Civil War began, these cots were finally replaced by “iron beds” as part of the city council’s attempts to
improve the Orphan House.” (Hacsi, p. 163).
Child institutions began to proliferate in the 1800’s. Boston established an asylum for indigent orphan girls in 1800, and New York City opened a child institution in 1807. Hartford, CN opened its child care institution in 1819, “Cincinnati in 1832, Chicago in 1849, and the Cleveland Protestant Orphan Asylum opened in 1853.” (Geiser, p. 157). In 1806, the New York City Ladies Society for Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children ran an orphanage which experimented with small cottages instead of large dormitories. In 1819, in Hartford, CN, the Female Beneficient Society set out to rescue “friendless and indigent little girls.” While private and public child institutions were beginning to separate out indigent children from poor adults, almshouses were still functioning during the early 1800’s as well. In 1823, New York City had 500 children in the Bellevue Almshouse, and 4,000 more were on outdoor public relief or in foster care homes. By 1848, NYC’s Bellevue Almshouse housed 1000 children. Up until the 1850’s, local and state governments intervened regarding child welfare only in cases of extreme abuse or child delinquency. (Geiser, p. 157).
During the 1800’s, the population of destitute children did not correspond with general
“Though still fairly rare before 1830, orphan asylums spread rapidly as a response to the cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1849. From 1830 to 1860, the population of the Unites States rose from 13 million to 31 million, an increase of roughly 140 percent. During the same period, the number of orphan asylums in the nation shot from about 33 to nearly 200, increasing at more than three times the rate of population growth….From 1860 – 1890, the national population doubled, from 31 million to 63 million. At the same time, the number of orphan asylums tripled, from just under two hundred to approximately six hundred.” (Hacsi, p. 49).
“In the early 1880’s, the Chicago Orphan Asylum, like many 19th century homes for children, accepted three categories of children: orphans, half-orphans, and “destitute” children. By the late 1880’s, “deserted by parents” had replaced “destitute” in the asylum’s annual descriptions of nonorphans. This may have reflected an increasingly harsh attitude towards poor parents.” (Hacsi, p. 117). By the mid-1800’s, orphan asylum were serving a diverse population that was not composed even predominantly of orphans (children with both parents dead). Certain wars, massacres, or epidemics had wiped out large portions of the population causing orphan asylum spikes at times in the past, but by the mid-1800’s, the reasons for children being left in orphanages had changed, and the admission standards for orphan asylums became stringent to keep out the masses. “The House of Destitute Children’s 1880 annual report went on to state that the “largest class” of children it cared for came from families where “the demon of strong drink has made a victim of father or mother or both.” On the other hand, a few asylums refused to accept children who had such “unworthy” parents. (Hacsi, p. 109).
Age limits were also applied to orphan asylum admissions. “In 1880, Brooklyn’s Home for Destitute Children, like the Boston Female Asylum 60 years before, would not accept children older than 10…In 1860, the Orphans’ Home and Asylum refused children over 9 unless it was given the right to retain them until they were 14 (in the case of half-orphans) or to place them out in homes (if they were full orphans). (Hacsi, p. 119).
The 1850’s saw a new spirit of commitment within America regarding the plight of neglected, poor children. It is said that some of the positive things to come out of America’s dark past regarding neglected children in poverty in indentured servitude and almshouses have been the increased demand for public education and the rise of child welfare organizations and advocacy/watchdog groups. One of the most famous advocates and reformers of child care in America during this period was Charles Loring Brace. In the early 1850’s Brace did missionary work as a minister in the worst of New York City’s slums, and he worried about the children he met there. Adamantly against placing children in institutional settings, as he said they were full of monotonous routine, and offered little stimulation or chance to develop independence, among other things, Brace ushered in the first traces of America’s foster care system. Brace took 54 children in 1853 to Michigan, displayed the children publicly in the town square, told sob stories about their pasts, and got people to adopt them, teary-eyed. In 1854, Brace helped found the
Children’s Aid Society of New York City. He proclaimed his purpose was to send local kids to “good Christian homes.” In his organization’s 25 years of service, it placed 51,000 children in foster care homes or outdoor relief. Brace fought for more humane home environments for neglected and poor children, as opposed to warehousing them or using them as a workforce in institutions. (Geiser, pp. 163-165).
In the late 1800’s, the Massachusetts State Board of Charities recommended that all children be removed from state almshouses. By this time, there was a societal belief that the state had a right and duty regarding the health and education of children if the parents were neglectful,abusive, etc., thus people began to look for new legal remedies for the plight of neglected children. In 1866, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was founded. A frustrated social worker approached the SPCA, when she found her client, a little abused girl, had no legal rights akin to the animal rights the SPCA founded many of its lawsuits upon. She pleaded for the SPCA to advocate for her client based on its work championing animal rights. After consideration, the SPCA declared humans are animals, thus it could defend the little girl’s rights against cruelty. The SPCA won the trial, the abusive parents went to jail for a year, precedent was set for child welfare rights in a courtroom, and in 1875, nine years after the founding of such a society for the protection of animals, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) was formed in New York City. By 1880, there were 33 child protection
societies in the U.S. By 1883, NY, PA, and MA had forbidden the placement of children from 2 to 16 years of age in almshouses. Ninety three child protection societies opened between 1800 and 1850. By 1920, there were 57 SPCA organizations and 307 Humane Societies that protected children and animals. (Geiser pp. 161-163).
Before the 1900’s, nearly all children who were wards of the state in New York were living in institutions. “In 1910, for example, of the 176,000 children in foster care, 65 percent of them were in institutions for the neglected, dependent, and emotionally disturbed child. By 1965, with 287,000 children in care, only 28 percent were in child welfare institutions.” (Geiser, p. 167).
Massachusetts had 49 percent of its children in institutions in 1910, but by 1965, only 16 percent remained in institutions. There is also a trend to have state supervision with child placement in outdoor relief since the mid-1900’s. In 1965, 78% of the children in foster care were under the supervision of public agencies, while 86% of the children in institutions were under the care of private agencies. (Geiser, p. 167).
In 1967, there were 1400 residential child welfare institutions in the U.S. One hundred and fifty of them were public, the rest were private. In 1967, these child institutions could house 94,000 children and were at an 83% occupancy rate with 78,400 kids in residence. In 1967, there were also 132,700 licensed/approved foster homes, with a capacity to house 283,400 children, with 231,200 in foster care, at an 82% occupancy rate. (Geiser, p. 167).
Hacsi asserts that “the passage of mothers’ pension laws undoubtedly allowed many children to stay in their own homes who previously would have had to turn to a local orphan asylum for help. But the limited funds and scope of most mothers’ pension programs meant that they only helped a small percentage of the families that needed help….those who…did not receive mothers’ pensions, often turned to orphan asylums…Orphan asylums had been created to care for children whose parents could not do so, due to illness, death, unemployment, or some other problem. Aid to Dependent Children (or “welfare”) served that same purpose, and it did so without splitting families apart.” (pp. 50 – 51). “By the 1890’s, asylums were being criticized regularly for raising “institutionalized” children unprepared to face independent life as adults.
These critics many of whom were child-placing advocates, also attacked asylums for accepting children too readily, thus allowing presumably undeserving parents to escape their responsibilities, and for then keeping children too long. Finally, the regimentation and often harsh discipline within asylums were criticized as being far from the “homelike ideal…” (Hacsi, p. 148).
Hacsi explores three types of child asylums: isolating, protective, and integrative, and says there can be overlap within these types, as well. “Children inside isolating institutions were thoroughly closed off from all society and their daily routines were closely regulated; their contact with their parents was severely limited….Protective asylums also effectively removed their children from the outside world but kept the children within their own cultural background,” writes Hacsi. He also notes that prisons and mental hospitals aimed to reform their inmates, and poorhouses shut the old and sick away from their friends and relatives “to deter the working class from seeking poor relief.” He also says that orphan asylums rarely tried to reform children, but rather sought to give relief. Integrative orphan asylums, the last type Hacsi speaks of, tried to integrate the institutionalized children with the outside world. Thus kids in these institutions went to public schools outside the institution, and were allowed more contact with the outside world. “Many asylums retained some protective traits into the 1920’s and beyond, especially Catholic asylums, which often continued to educate children within the asylum until they were old enough for high school.” (Hacsi, p. 57).
Hacsi writes that two fundamental differences between isolating and protective asylums werethat protective asylums eventually returned the children to their families, where the isolating asylums did not. Also, isolating asylums took children from different religious backgrounds whereas protective asylums sought children of the same religious background.” (Hacsi, p. 59).
These isolating and protective models of orphanages came to resemble prisons, and the orphans, prisoners, which I believe also fueled the move away from child institutions.
If one adds up the numbers given by Geiser in his book alone, the statistical numbers of homeless and neglected poor children in America’s past is overwhelming. Brace’s organization placed 51,000 children in homes in 25 years during the late 1800’s. In 1848, 1,000 children were living in the NYC Bellevue Almshouse with 4,000 in outdoor relief from that institution. The Foundling’s Hospital received 1,527 children during eleven months of 1868. In 1910, there were 176,000 kids in foster care homes in America. In 1965, 287,000 kids were in foster care.
Hundreds of thousands of children have been funneled through America’s child institutions and outdoor relief programs. This is not about an isolated few children.