The New York Children’s Aid Society
Introduction: The New York Children’s Aid Society (CAS) was founded in February 1853 by a small group of clergymen and social reformers concerned about the general conditions of homeless, neglected and delinquent children. One of the principals of this group was a young Congregational minister, Rev. Charles Loring Brace, who had been working as an assistant minister in the Five Points Mission located in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods of the city. Rev. Brace also occasionally visited the New York City Almshouse on Blackwell’s Island further exposing him to the degrading and dehumanizing conditions prevalent in large sections of the city. The twenty-six year old Rev. Brace was selected by the group to become the Secretary/Director of the new organization. According to the first annual report, the founding was motivated by concern over the burden upon city resources caused by unprecedented numbers of immigrants, and over concern that impoverished immigrant children were turning to crime or barely surviving as homeless urchins, begging, selling matches or sweeping streets. The founders of CAS believed that gainful work, education, and a wholesome family atmosphere would transform New York’s street children into self-reliant members of society.
Early Programs and Services: The CAS organization raised substantial funds from the public and many wealthy philanthropists including members of the Roosevelt, Astor, and Dodge families, and immediately began opening lodging houses for homeless youths, as well as industrial schools to teach cobbling, sewing, and many other trades. CAS also initiated an emigration program, which they explicated in the first annual report: “We have thus far sent off to homes in the country, or to places where they could earn an honest living, 164 boys and 43 girls, of whom some 20 were taken from prison, where they had been placed for being homeless on the streets. The great majority were the children of poor or degraded people, who were leaving them to grow up neglected in the streets. They were found by our visitors at the turning point of their lives, and sent to friendly homes, where they would be removed from the overwhelming temptations which poverty and neglect certainly occasion in a great city. Of these 200 boys and girls, a great proportion are so many vagrants or criminals saved; so much expense lessened to courts and prisons; so much poisonous influence removed from the city; and so many boys and girls, worthy of something better from society than a felon’s fate, placed where they can enter on manhood or womanhood somewhat as God intended that they should.” (Source: The Victor Remer Historical Archives of the Children’s Aid Society, Children’s Aid Society of New York City.)
“The Orphan Train:” From 1853-1929 the Emigration Department, interchangeably known as the Placing-Out Department, and finally the Foster Home Department, sent tens of thousands of children to the country, placing them most often with farm families. With this program, the Children’s Aid Society became one of the first and principal organizations orchestrating the mass migration of children now known as “the orphan train,” and established itself as a pioneer in the development of foster care for children, as opposed to institutionalization in orphanages or almshouses. The CAS sent children all over the United States. At first, they sent children primarily to the Midwest and West, taking advantage of new train lines and the need for farm labor during the period of westward expansion. Children were also sent south, often to Delaware and Maryland. By the early 1920’s, half of all children placed went north to upstate New York. “Orphan train riders” ranged in age from infants to older teenagers. Some were foster children; the families agreed to treat them like members of the family and send them to school, and in return expected the children to help on the farm or in the house. Other children were formally adopted. Still others (usually older boys) were sent as paid laborers. The Children’s Aid Society followed up on all children they placed. The children and/or their foster families were expected to write regularly to the CAS. In addition, field agents made regular visits to homes where children had been placed, and wrote reports after each visit. Children were frequently removed from homes and transferred to other homes when the situation was not harmonious.
Although the emigration program became known as the “orphan train,” many of the children were not orphans. They were children whose guardians could not care for them, or who hoped they would find a better life, and who signed surrender documents releasing them to the care of the Children’s Aid Society. Many others were adolescents without known guardians who were seeking their own fortunes by heading west. Some children came via CAS lodging houses or schools, or were recruited by CAS agents. Many other children were transferred to the care of the Children’s Aid Society from orphanages, almshouses and correctional facilities all over New York City and State. For older boys, the CAS operated a farm school (Brace Farm opened in 1894 in Valhalla N.Y. and was superseded by a more substantial program at Bowdoin Farm in New Hamburg N.Y. in 1929) to train boys in farm work and give them a taste of what to expect, before sending them to farms. By 1929 the emigration program in its original form had ended, and the only children sent to farms in the country were older boys placed as paid laborers after training at Bowdoin Farm. A smaller training program at Goodhue Home on Staten Island prepared girls for foster care and adoption placement, beginning around 1921. (Source: The Victor Remer Historical Archives of the Children’s Aid Society, Children’s Aid Society of New York City.)
How The Program Worked: Children were taken in small groups of 10 to 40, under the supervision of at least one “western” agent, traveled on trains to selected stops along the way, where they were taken by families in that area. It was an early form of foster care.
Agents would plan a route, send flyers to towns along the way, and arrange for a
“screening committee” in towns where the children might get new homes. The towns where they stopped, naturally, had to be along a railroad line. The screening committee (mostly men) was usually made up of a town doctor, clergyman, newspaper editor, store owner and/or teacher.
The committee was asked to select possible parents for the children and approve or
disapprove on the day the children arrived. They were to help the agent(s) in the
placements. When the children arrived, a contract was signed between the Children’s Aid Society and the adults taking the child. This is how the contract read:
Terms on Which Boys are Placed in Homes
Applications must be endorsed by the Local Committee.
Boys under 15 years of age, if not legally, adopted, must be retained as members of
the family and sent to school according to the Educational Laws of the State, until they
are 18 years old. Suitable provision must then be made for their future.
Boys between 15 years of age must be retained as members of the family and sent to
school during the winter months until they are 17 years old, when a mutual
arrangement may be made.
Boys over 16 years of age must be retained as members of the family for one year,
after which a mutual arrangement may be made.
Parties taking boys agree to write to the Society at least once a year, or to have the
boys do so.
Removals of boys proving unsatisfactory can be arranged through the Local
Committee or an Agent of the Society, the party agreeing to retain the boy a
reasonable length of time after notifying the Society of the desired change.
Group of children with CAS agents
If for any reason, the child had to be removed from the household, the Children’s Aid
Society did it at their own expense it cost the new family nothing.
The first group of children went to Dowagiac, Michigan, in 1854, and the last official
train ran to Texas in 1929.
Annual reports of the Children’s Aid Society prints selected letters from the children.
Glowing reports of a good life with a caring family often closes with a wistful, “If you
should see my brother, please tell him where I am.” Charles Loring Brace
By 1860, 30,500 miles of tracks had been laid. Eleven railroads met in Chicago. A
person could leave Boston by railroad and reach St. Louis in three days. By 1870 the
trains ran from the East coast to Omaha, Nebraska.
The history of the railroads is deeply tied to the history of the “Orphan Trains Era” in
America. Railroads were the most inexpensive way to move children westward from
poverty filled homes, orphanages, poor houses, and off the streets. In the west, and
mid-west, Brace believed, solid, God-fearing homes could be found for the children.
Food would be plentiful with pure air to breathe and a good work ethnic developed by
living on a farm would help them to grow into mature responsible adults able to care
for themselves. (Source: The National Orphan Train Complex, Inc.