Florence Crittenton Homes: A History
The first Florence Crittenton home, the Florence Night Mission, was opened in 1883 on New York City’s Bleeker Street by Charles Nelson Crittenton, a wealthy New York merchant. Crittenton founded the mission in memory of his daughter, Florence, who had died at the age of four. The purposes of this home were to reform “fallen women” and preach salvation and hope to and provide shelter for unmarried, pregnant women and girls. With the success of the Bleeker Street mission, Crittenton became a traveling evangelist, preaching in particular to prostitutes and the unwed mothers. As a result of his efforts, “Crittenton Homes” that provided rescue services and shelter to unwed mothers in an atmosphere permeated by Christian evangelism were established throughout the United States beginning in 1892.
In 1893, at a Christian Workers convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Crittenton met Dr. Kate Waller Barrett, a physician with whom he had corresponded regarding rescue work. Dr. Barrett assisted Crittenton in organizing homes and, in 1895, in forming the National Florence Crittenton Mission (NFCM) to provide a link between the various individual homes. Charles Crittenton became president and Dr. Barrett was appointed as the vice president and superintendent of the newly formed Mission. By the time the NFCM held its first national conference in 1897, it had fifty-one member homes. Local women’s groups, known as “Florence Crittenton Circles,” were also established in many cities to promote financial support for the Crittenton homes. The NFCM was granted a national charter by a special act of Congress in 1898 to provide shelter to women and girls who “have been betrayed from the path of virtue,” to encourage their reformation, and help establish them in “honest industry.”
Dr. Barrett and Crittenton traveled across the United States to bring public attention to the problems of prostitution and sexual offences and to promote an evangelical Christian attitude towards unwed mothers. Barrett also administered the national mission and provided consultation for individual homes. The NFCM was involved in several anti-prostitution efforts during the early 1900s and also stressed the need to provide care and training that would enable women to leave prostitution. In several cases where “red light” districts were closed, the NFCM consulted on how to provide for the prostitutes. However, its primary focus was the rescue and care of unwed mothers, their need for adequate medical care, and their right to raise their children free from the scorn of society. Except in extreme circumstances, Crittenton policy opposed the separation of mother and child for adoption and believed that children should be kept out of institutions. In fact, motherhood was seen as a means of reform and the Crittenton home as a training ground for responsible motherhood and self-support. “Our girls need the influence of child-life upon them. They need to have the qualities that are essential to a strong, well regulated character trained in them” wrote Kate Waller Barrett in an undated pamphlet promoting the Crittenton philosophy of rescue work and its policy of keeping mother and child together.
The early 1900s saw changes in the structure and management of the NFCM and the operation of its individual homes, although its central purpose remained essentially the same. A five-member board was established in 1903 as part of a special act of Congress to amend the NFCM charter and reorganize the Mission. After Crittenton’s death in 1909, Dr. Barrett succeeded him as president of the NFCM. Until her death in 1925, she worked to increase the influence of the national mission and to raise standards in the individual homes. She did much to call public attention to society’s responsibility for the problems of unwed motherhood and worked to overcome frequent community opposition toward the mere mention of a subject that had long been prohibited by strict social taboos.
Robert South Barrett succeeded his mother as president of the NFCM in 1925 and her daughter, Reba Barrett Smith, became the general superintendent. In 1925, the NFCM established a Central Extension Committee, a group of fifteen members elected by the homes to serve as an advisory body to the Mission. The bylaws of the Central Extension Committee stated its purpose as follows: “To further the work of the NFCM in accordance with the policies of its founders regarding the spiritual, physical, social, and economic well-being of those whose rehabilitation is the goal of the organization.” The executive officer was designated as the national extension director. The director’s work involved visiting the homes and working with community groups to solve problems. The Central Extension Committee had complete responsibility for planning the annual national conferences and organizing the work of the extension director. Elizabeth Collier served as national extension director in the 1930s, and Hester Brown succeeded her in this position in 1940.
During the tenures of Kate Waller Barrett and Robert Barrett, the Crittenton homes began to be influenced by the emerging profession of social work. The NFCM began to offer professional training to staff members and worked to make homes comply with new state standards for child welfare. This trend was to have a profound influence on Crittenton methods over the next two decades, even while some homes retained their religious evangelical character and remained true to their original policy of encouraging unwed mothers to raise their own children. Issues faced during these years included: professional training of social workers, changing attitudes towards adoption, and meeting standards set by state welfare agencies.
During the 1920s to the 1940s, Crittenton homes faced pressures to become more professional in their methods. Beginning in the 1910s, states revised their adoption laws to emphasize child welfare and parent anonymity. Adoption agencies also began to emerge at this time. These trends opened new options for unwed mothers that began to compete with the Crittenton homes. Community Chest organizations, to which many homes turned for funding at this time, pressured homes to adopt the methods and standards of professional social work. The Crittenton homes’ evangelical emphasis on redemption, and its attendant goal of keeping mother and child together, came to be seen as outdated and unprofessional. Policies such as residence requirements were viewed as too restrictive and prohibited women from seeking work, especially when jobs became available during World War II. In 1943, at the 60th annual conference for Florence Crittenton workers, a resolution was adopted setting the standard of individual case planning for each resident and work with local adoption agencies. However, local control remained strong in some cities. Conflicts over standards and professionalization occasionally arose between local homes, the national mission, and local funding and social work agencies — with the national mission sometimes assuming the role of mediator.
In the mid-1940s, National Florence Crittenton Mission executives, Robert Barrett and Reba Smith, announced their intention to retire by 1950 or 1951. Hester Brown, national extension director, was also anticipating retirement. This prompted plans for a reorganization and a special committee was appointed to study the future of the Mission. Rather than revise the NFCM charter, the Florence Crittenton Homes Association (FCHA) was established at the1950 annual meeting of the NFCM. The FCHA was an autonomous federation of Crittenton homes financed partly by the national mission and partly through dues paid by the member homes. It operated as a separate agency from the NFCM and assumed the responsibility for work with individual homes as well as the extension and clearing house services that had previously been provided by the national mission. Robert Barrett retired as the president of the national mission in 1950, but he retained his position as chairman of the board of trustees until his death in 1959. His son, Rear Admiral John P. B. Barrett, succeeded him as president of the NFCM until 1969, when he became secretary and was succeeded by Bruce Wert.
After the creation of the Florence Crittenton Homes Association in 1950 and its maturation as the Florence Crittenton Association (FCA), the NFCM gradually reduced its involvement in the operations of the homes throughout the country. It gave up its extension and clearing-house services and focused primarily on maintaining and supervising its invested funds, providing the chief means of support for the new association (and, later, for the Florence Crittenton Division of the Child Welfare League of America) and awarding grants to individual Crittenton agencies for capital improvement and program expansion projects.
Additional information on the history of the National Florence Crittenton Mission is available in Fifty Years Work with Girls by Otto Wilson. The book contains a history of the Mission, information on its founders and early leaders, and brief histories of individual member homes.
Source: National Florence Crittenton Mission Records. Historical Note. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN.