Early 1900s

The early philosophies and practices of American social welfare were rooted in the English Poor Law, which was codified in 1601. Settlers in the American colonies adapted the Poor Law’s principles to the new country’s beliefs in democracy as well as individual rights and freedoms. Social welfare was influenced heavily by religious ideas, such as saving souls, and a moral duty to help those in need.

People of sound mind and body were expected to work and take care of their families. Relatives and neighbors were responsible for helping family members in need. If they were unable to do

 so, the local community, which was usually organized around a parish, was obliged to help. Ultimately, local officials were responsible for providing relief.

Charity was afforded only to those at the very margins of society—the “dependent, defective and delinquent.” Dependent poor were a plentiful source of cheap labor and were literally “farmed out.” Children were bound out as apprentices, and adults were sent to the workhouse. Both children and adults were placed with other families and the host family was paid for the service. It was, perhaps, a precursor of foster care, but it lacked the well-intentioned motivation of later years that a family setting was the best placement for a child.

Religious, ethnic and fraternal groups created almshouses and other programs to look after their own. The Scots’ Charitable Society, founded in Boston in 1657, is the oldest American charitable organization still in existence. In the early 1650s, Scots captured in battle by English forces were sold as indentured servants. Many were sent to work in an English-owned ironworks factory in Massachusetts. “Our benevolence is for the releefe of our selves being Scottishmen,” stated the founders of the Boston Society (Scots’ Charitable Society of Boston).

The 19th century was a period of sweeping transformation. Abundant prosperity alternated with civil war, bank panics and depression. Rapid industrialization led to equally rapid urbanization and immigration. The port cities along the Eastern Seaboard swelled with vast numbers of new immigrants.

Loosely-organized voluntary charitable groups developed to address the emergent problems of the day: pauperism, widows and orphans, mistreatment of animals, and epidemics along with natural disasters that ravaged entire cities. A sense of humanitarian moral responsibility vied with the belief that the misfortunate were responsible for their plight and should help themselves.

The New York Society for the Prevention of Pauperism was founded in 1817. The panic of 1819 and subsequent depression led to rapid development of similar societies. By the 1820s, states were forming commissions to assess administration of public charity. Poor farms and public institutions were created for orphans, the deaf, tuberculosis patients, delinquent youth and prisoners. The United States government created the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824, and it was the first federal effort to provide direct welfare services.

Orphanages are Among the First Organized Charities

Since the earliest recorded histories, most cultures have provided for their abandoned, vulnerable children: family helping family, neighbor helping neighbor, and religious congregation helping members. With the population explosion, rampant disease, and peripatetic society of America’s 19th century, orphanages proliferated.

The first known orphanage in America was founded in 1795. By 1900, there were about 1,000. Many arose in response to the needs of immigrants living in poverty. Others followed in the wake of war, depression or epidemic disease.

Many children living in orphanages were not parentless. Some had lost one parent and the surviving parent was unable to care for the children. Some were placed there because their parents were impoverished, seriously ill or disabled. In some cases, the orphanage was intended to be a temporary placement until the child could return home or until another suitable home could be found. In others, the orphanage became a home until the child reached adulthood. Residents would be taught a vocation, receive an education, and then “graduate” upon maturation. Fresh country air, hard work and a structured environment were thought to equip children with good morals and a tough constitution.

Religious institutions were a primary sponsor of orphanages. They instilled the beliefs and values of the religion, and they also were an important means of preserving the language and culture of immigrants. Private charities and public departments also founded charities and other forms of institutional care, such as mental asylums and almshouses.

Today’s Hillside Family of Agencies in Rochester, N.Y., illustrates the trajectory of the many Alliance member agencies that were founded as orphanages. Following the cholera epidemic, the fast-growing village of Rochester, N.Y. had an increasing number of children needing aid. The Rochester Female Association for the Relief of Orphans and Destitute Children, which was later named the Rochester Orphan Asylum, was formed and admitted its first charges from the local almshouse in 1837. These were children who no longer had parents to care for them because of death, prison or indigence. The orphanage continued to grow and began to admit many children who were not orphaned, but who came from families in crisis.

By the turn of the century, the concept of child residential treatment had changed. Homer Folks, a pioneer in the child welfare movement, was among the progressives who argued that the best setting for children was in their own home. Rather than removing children from dysfunctional families, the focus should be to improve their family situations. Institutionalization was to be avoided. If children could not remain at home, then a foster home or the most home-like setting possible should be provided. The first White House Conference on Dependent Children in 1909 and the creation of the U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1912 supported this philosophy. The new widow’s pension laws made it easier for single mothers to support their children.

The Rochester Orphan Asylum was an early adapter. It debuted an innovative cottage system in 1905 to create a home-like setting within the structure of the institution.

By the 1920s, institutionalization was falling out of favor. A family setting, whether it was through foster care or adoption, was recognized as the best environment for children. “Gone were the days when ‘benevolent’ middle and upper class women would take a child from his or her home and place them in an institution, sheltered from the evil world and defective parenting. Banished were words like orphanage and asylum. If a child couldn’t be helped from within the framework of the family he or she would be removed only on a temporary basis and put into an institution more like a ‘normal’ home than any asylum of the past century had ever been. Children who could not be returned to their biological families for a while, if ever, were placed in foster care.” (A New Era in Child Care, Jane Yunker)

Civil War Heightens Need

The War Between the States prompted federal health and social welfare programs. Army camps and hospitals were riddled with disease, lacked trained medical care, and had no preventive sanitary measures. The first national public health group, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, was created in 1861. Private groups mobilized to provide food, clothing, medical supplies, and a nursing corps. State boards of health were formed and implemented sanitation practices. Numerous charitable organizations were founded to care for widows and orphans; among them were many members of today’s Alliance for Children and Families.

The United States government created the first federal social welfare organization just before the war ended; the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands provided temporary relief to freed slaves. Operating from 1865 to 1872, the bureau provided rations, education, legal aid, health care, job training, housing, and other resettlement services.

The bureau provided relief on an unprecedented scale—the first indication that if poverty and hardship could not be remedied at the local level, the federal government could successfully provide for the welfare of the people. Such massive, sustained social welfare was not seen again until the Great Depression necessitated federal action. (From Poor Law to Welfare State, Sixth Edition, Walter I. Trattner, The Free Press, New York, 1999)

Read the next chapter from A Century of Service.

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Stories from the Network

Cornerstone Family Programs

The Female Charitable Society of Morristown, N.J. (today’s Cornerstone Family Programs) was founded in 1813 in response to the devastation of the War of 1812. The men were all off at war, while the women and children—fast becoming widows and orphans—were left behind. The prominent women of the community believed that the needs of the “deserving poor” were inadequately met by the existing poor laws of the time. These female volunteers literally adopted families street by street, supplying food, clothing, wood, and coal. By 1919, the agency hired its first part-time professional social worker. In 1925, it was among the first family welfare agencies in the country to hire a black social worker.

Today, the mission of Cornerstone Family Programs reflects the same principles as those of the founders almost 200 years ago: Strengthening communities by helping people build better lives.

In fact, the agency is again helping military men and women as well as their families left at home. In 2008, it created the innovative Military Families and Veterans Outreach program. Therapeutic services and resource connections are provided to Morris County families of actively deployed service members, returning veterans, and their families.

Cincinnati Union Bethel

Riverboats plying the Ohio River brought a new population to the growing town of Cincinnati. Cincinnati Union Bethel was formed in 1830 to provide a “means of grace and moral improvement” for the boatmen settling in the river area. Clergymen united to offer religious services to the thousands of crewmen who passed through the town. Recognizing that sailors’ families needed as much care as the sailors themselves, the organization created a Sunday school in 1839 and later began to care for the poverty-stricken children who attended the school.

In 1901, the organization shifted its focus to social work and established the first free kindergarten before there was a public school system. Free dental and health services, legal services and a day nursery were soon added. In 1909, the agency opened the Anna Louise Inn to provide accommodation for young women.

Today, Cincinnati Union Bethel continues to provide early childhood education through Head Start preschool programs. The Anna Louise Inn provides safe, affordable housing for about 250 low-income women each year and offers emergency shelter to homeless families. The agency’s Off the Streets program helps women involved in prostitution move toward safety, recovery, and community reintegration. For more than 180 years, Cincinnati Union Bethel has helped children, families, and communities realize their greatest potential. 

Disease Creates Hardships Served by Social Services

The New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor was organized in 1843. It is one of the predecessor organizations of today’s Community Service Society of New York in New York City. The organization established the first public bath houses in the state of New York in 1852 to help stop the spread of infectious disease. The first model tenement was built in 1855, a building with light and fresh air in every unit. After thousands of children across New York died from tainted milk (water was mixed with ground chalk), the association launched the drive that led to pure milk legislation in 1862.

A Milwaukee mother dying of cholera entrusted the care of her seven sons to a diocesan priest, who cared for the boys in his home with the help of his sisters. Their act of charity alerted Milwaukee’s bishop, John Martin Henni, to the plight of children orphaned by the cholera epidemic. In 1849, Bishop Henni founded St. Aemilian’s Orphan Asylum in Milwaukee. In addition to tending to their studies, boys were expected to wash dishes, sweep and polish floors, and make their own beds. A high priority was placed on outdoor recreation and holiday programs. The orphanage eventually was replaced by foster care and therapeutic services. Today, St. Aemilian-Lakeside in Milwaukee offers a continuum of education, therapy, support, and prevention services.  

Leake & Watts Services

The nonsectarian Leake & Watts Orphan House (today’s Leake & Watts Services in Yonkers, N.Y.) was created in 1831 in response to the city’s burgeoning immigrant population. It was one of the first private charitable institutions in the country devoted to children in need. Founders and business partners John George Leake and John Watts, Jr. were at the forefront of a social responsibility movement that gave birth to many orphanages and other social service agencies in the decades to come. Most children came to the orphanage when they were young and left when they finished their schooling.

In the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, the philosophy had shifted to providing children with a less institutional, more home-like environment. Leake & Watts Services introduced the cottage system, with six cottages serving 10-30 girls each. Cottage “parents” guided the girls. This model remains the basis of today’s residential treatment center, which integrates residential and therapeutic services for youth.

By 1937, the agency had established a social services department with social workers to address the therapeutic needs of those in care. In 1944, Leake & Watts began placing children in foster homes throughout the community. Today, the agency provides a continuum of care, from early childhood education and prevention services to therapeutic residential care and a secure juvenile detention facility.