The Removal of Children From Almshouses

A Presentation by Homer Folks, Chairman, Secretary of the State Charities Aid Association of New York at the Twenty-First Annual Session Held May, 1894

Editor’s Note:  This entry is one of three presentations by distinguished leaders of the era at the 1894 Annual Meeting of the National Conference on Social Welfare in a section of the meeting on “Child-Saving.”  Together, the three entries describe the institutions, deplorable conditions and efforts to reform and improve the care of vulnerable children. The other two entries are:

 “The Removal of Children from Almshouses in the State of New York,” by Hon. W. P. Letchworth

“The Boarding System for Neglected Children,” by Miss C. H. Pemberton

Homer Folks

Homer Folks

The history of the poorhouse has been a disgraceful chapter in the annals of every State and every country. Under whatever name the institution has been known,- workhouse in England, almshouse in Massachusetts, county home in Pennsylvania, infirmary in Ohio,-its nature has been the same. Everywhere it has been the abomination of desolation. Everywhere men have instinctively spoken of “going to the poorhouse” as the last and bitterest of earthly misfortunes. If the vital statistics of poorhouses could be accurately kept, the percentage of deaths from a broken heart would be surprising.

The reasons for this state of things are easily seen. The poorhouse became the dumping-ground for the wreckage and waste of human society. It was the only open door to all those who were unable to compete successfully in the struggle for a livelihood by reason of mental or physical infirmity, and at the same time had no relatives or friends with sufficient heart and means to give them shelter, — in other words, of all those who from any cause were economically “unfit” and socially isolated.

The classes which inevitably took their way over the hills to the poorhouse were as varied as the causes which produce extreme poverty. Among them were the mentally incompetent, including the insane, epileptics, the feeble-minded, and idiotic; the physically disabled, including those whom old age finds without friends or provision for a rainy day, the destitute sick, the blind, deaf-mutes, and the crippled and deformed. There also pass through its doors a melancholy procession of destitute children and unwedded mothers.

Certainly, such a motley gathering of incapables could lead to no good result. Each individual of each of these classes needs an extra amount of personal care and expert treatment. It was because of this fact that they were brought to the poorhouse. Their friends or relatives found them burdensome, and were unable or unwilling to make the personal sacrifice of time and service which the occasion called for. They came to the poorhouse, not to receive better care, more attention, more intelligent treatment, but to take care of each other, —the idiotic to keep guard over the insane, the blind to lead the halt, feeble-minded adults to train children. Naturally, it was impossible for any poorhouse with this varied population to be a fit place for any human being to live in.

But added to the natural difficulties were others. The poorhouse has been too often, though not always, the cheapest of the spoils of politics for plunder only. Each party in successive control has felt that its political future depended upon persuading the people that the poorhouse had been managed extravagantly by its predecessor and economically by itself. To accomplish this end, the supply of food has often been reduced to the lowest possible point, and purchased at the lowest price, with little regard to quality; repairs to buildings have been postponed indefinitely; nurses and attendants have been dispensed with. This persistent, hard-hearted demand for economy, which seems to be well-nigh universal, does not represent, in my opinion, the real feeling of the people of any community of the United States. It is simply the false cry of the politician seeking ” an issue.” I am optimistic enough to believe that in every community of the United States a majority of the voters, to say nothing of the women, would, if the matter were fairly presented, decide every question affecting poorhouse management on the grounds of humanity rather than economy.

To add to the difficulties, the poorhouse has frequently been located in the most inaccessible part of the county. “Over the hills” is too often a correct description of the journey. I recall a typical case in Pennsylvania. Parallel railroads traversed opposite sides of the county. Rival cities were located on these roads. To avoid injury to the local pride of one city by locating a public institution near the other, and to assist in securing a fair distribution of patronage, the poorhouse was located half-way between. It was ten miles from the nearer railway station, and eleven from the other. At the time of my visit there were twenty children roaming through this poorhouse. The nearest city, ten miles away, was one of the finest of country towns. Its people were well-to-do, cultured, kind, and public-spirited. They took pride in showing their well-built city to visitors, and in pointing out their magnificent school building and their numerous and beautiful churches. But the enthusiastic citizens, who took a deep interest in the temporal as well as the spiritual wants of the heathen by the Congo and the Ganges, had overlooked those who were sitting in darkness by the Susquehanna. They did not realize that in that poorhouse twenty American children were becoming worse than heathen. ” It is so far away,” they said. No one doubts that the American people are humane at heart. We do not mean to be cruel, but I wonder if we are not cruelly thoughtless.

“Evil is wrought by want of thought As well as want of heart.”

The erection of county poorhouses was first authorized in the State of New York in 1824. In 1856, thirty-eight years ago, and thirty-two years after the first poorhouses were built, the Senate of the State of New York appointed a ” Select Committee” to investigate all the charitable institutions of the State. They gave five months to their work, and in their report concerning the poorhouses summed up their conclusions thus:

As receptacles for adult paupers, the committee do not hesitate to record their deliberate opinion that the great mass of the poorhouses that they have inspected are most disgraceful memorials of the public charity. Common domestic animals are usually more humanely provided for than the paupers in these institutions. The evidence taken by the committee exhibits such a record of filth, nakedness, licentiousness, general bad morals, and disregard of religion and the most common religious observances, as well as of gross neglect of the most ordinary comforts and decencies of life as, if published in detail, would disgrace the State and shock humanity.

Yet I doubt whether New York was one whit worse than any other State in the Union.

The committee reported farther, “It is much to be regretted that our citizens generally manifest so little interest in the condition even of the poorhouses in their immediate neighborhood, and the committee are quite convinced that to this apparent indifference on the part of the citizens may be attributed to a great degree the miserable state to which these houses have fallen.” It is greatly to be feared that the citizens of the United States, generally, still deserve the reproach which thirty-eight years ago this committee felt it their duty to offer to the citizens of the State of New York.

Poorhouse reform has of necessity worked in the line of segregating these various elements of the poorhouse population, and in securing for each class the special care, expert treatment, and favorable conditions which their malady requires. The blind have been removed to schools where they receive an education which enables many of them to take their places among the wage-earners of the community. The insane have been removed to State hospitals where they receive expert medical treatment, are allowed the largest possible degree of liberty, and are regarded simply as sick people to be cured. Feeble-minded children have in many of the States been removed to training schools where they can be made happy and comfortable, receive the training and education of which they are individually capable, and be prevented from perpetuating their kind. The deformed and crippled have been sent to hospitals for the treatment and cure, if possible, of their special deformities. Two States, Ohio and New York, have recently established separate institutions for the employment and treatment of epileptics, an entirely distinct class of unfortunates, who have been crowded into the poorhouses greatly to their own injury, simply because there was no other place to which they could go.

Most important of all has been the removal of children from the demoralizing influences of poorhouse associations. It is a simple statement of fact that the majority of children who grow to adolescence in poorhouses become paupers or criminals. How could it be otherwise? Do we realize even yet to how great an extent every human being is the natural product of his surroundings; that all we know we have been taught; that the good start we got in life was due to the fact that we had loving fathers and mothers who poured out their lives into our own, and little by little and with infinite pains taught us to walk, to talk, to eat, to read, to work, to live? These things come not by intuition, but by example and precept. Think, then, for a moment of the absence of any inspiring, humanizing, developing influences in the poorhouse; of the distorted and debased human lives after which the poorhouse child patterned; of the wornout or faulty material, rejected by society, out of which he constructed his life; of the vices, more contagious than disease, in the midst of which he lived by day and night. There could be but one product. Protracted residence in a poorhouse produced everywhere a certain type of child, – lazy, profane, cunning, immoral, absolutely untruthful, quarrelsome, bold. Whether these characteristics became permanent depended upon how long the forces that produced them were in action.

It is not necessary at this time to describe all the consequences of compelling children to live in a pauper atmosphere, with feebleminded adults as playmates and nurses, and for teachers physical and moral wrecks who had squandered their substance in riotous living. For that wretched system no one now stands as apologist. We all agree that it was and is and always must be bad,- unqualifiedly bad.

The history of the movement to exclude children from almshouses may perhaps be said to begin in the United States with the report of this special committee of 1856, which said: “The most important point in the whole subject confided to the committee is that which concerns the care and education of children of paupers. The committee are forced to say that it is a great public reproach that they should be permitted to remain in the poorhouses as they are now mismanaged. They are for the young the worst possible nurseries.” Not much was accomplished, however, during the next ten years; and, when the State Board of Charities was established in 1867, it found some 2,300 children in poorhouses in the State of New York. Efforts were made to induce the boards of supervisors of the various counties to make other provision for the children, either by placing them in families or by sending them to asylums for children. Through the influence of the members of the State Board of Charities and other public-spirited citizens, a very considerable number of the counties of the State removed some or all of the children from the poorhouses. Nearly another ten years had passed, however, before the practice of sending children to poorhouses was definitely forbidden by law. In 1875, through the efforts of the Hon. William P. Letchworth of the State Board of Charities, supported by the State Charities Aid Association, a statute was secured, forbidding the retention of children over three years of age in any of the almshouses or poorhouses of the State. Meanwhile similar agitations had been carried on in other States. The legislature of Michigan appointed in I869 an investigating committee to visit county jails and poorhouses, and, as the outcome of the work of this committee, established in 1871 its now noted State School for Dependent Children. A law forbidding the sending of children over five and under sixteen years of age to poorhouses was passed in Wisconsin in 1876. Similar legislation was secured in Massachusetts in I879, in Indiana and Michigan in I88I, in Ohio and Pennsylvania in I883. Minnesota and Rhode Island established State schools for dependent children in 1885; Kansas, in I887. An effort to secure such a law in Illinois in I893 was unsuccessful, but will be renewed in I895.

Of these laws, that of New York in its present amended form is perhaps the most radical, making it unlawful to send any child between the ages of two and sixteen years to any poorhouse or almshouse. Pennsylvania exempts feeble-minded and other defective children. It does not forbid the sending of children to poorhouses, but commands their removal within sixty days. Massachusetts allows children to remain until four years of age, and, if they have mothers in the poorhouse able to care for them, until eight years of age. Only within the past year has this law been made to apply to the town almshouses, of which there are a large number in the State. In Wisconsin children under six years of age are exempted from the law, as are also defective children.

In regard to such legislation the consensus of opinion among those familiar with the subject seems to be, I think, that the more radical, the better; that, in fact, any statute which does not absolutely prohibit the residence of children of sound mind and body and past two years of age in any almshouse is seriously defective.

In spite of the unanimity of opinion as to the beneficial effects of such a law and the possibility of its easy enforcement, statutes forbidding the residence of children in poorhouses have been passed in only a few States. The census of I890 tells us that there are still 4,987 children between two and sixteen years of age, inclusive, in poorhouses in the United States. No doubt a proportion of these are defective children, who could not ordinarily be placed in families or asylums for normal children; but the fact seems to be indisputable that several thousand children practically sound in mind and body still remain in our poorhouses.

I had gained the impression from some source that a large proportion of these children were in the Southern States; and when I began to prepare for this meeting, I supposed that it would probably be our duty to “gently, but firmly,” remind our friends of the South that this was not creditable. A study of the census figures, however, shows that, although children form a larger proportion of the almshouse population in the South than in the North, those States having the largest number of children in poorhouses in proportion to the population of the State are located without reference to Mason and Dixon’s line. The States which are shown by census bulletin No. I54 to have the largest number of children between two and sixteen years of age in almshouses in proportion to their total population are as follows: New Hampshire, 46 children in almshouses to one hundred thousand of the general population; Vermont, 27; West Virginia, 25; New Jersey,* 23; Virginia, I9; Maine, I8; Ohio,* 17; Rhode Island, i6; Massachusetts,* I5; Indiana, I5; Kentucky, I4; Montana, I2; North Carolina, Io; Pennsylvania,* 8; Illinois, 8; Tennessee, 8; Delaware, 7; Maryland, 6; Connecticut, 6; Michigan, 6; Missouri, 5; Kansas, 5; Georgia, 4. All other States and Territories are reported to have less than four children in almshouses per one hundred thousand population.

* It should be said that authorities in these States question the accuracy of the census returns, if they are to be understood as including only children living in actual contact with adult paupers.

A paper on this subject would be inexcusably incomplete which did not make some mention of the different methods adopted in the various States for the care of dependent children who formerly would have been sent to the poorhouse. While no two States have adopted systems exactly alike, we may, disregarding certain minor differences, divide the various methods into four groups; and, as each method has been in operation for some years, the time may have arrived for forming some sort of a comparison, and noting the advantages claimed for and objections urged against each.

The four classes of methods are: –

1. The private asylum system, used in New York and California: The law of New York provides that children who are public charges shall be provided for “in families, orphan asylums, hospitals, or other appropriate institutions.” As a matter of fact, although the county and town officials place a few children in families, the great majority are sent to orphan asylums and kindred institutions. Reports from the superintendents of the poor of forty of the sixty counties of the State show 68 children placed by them in families in I892, while during the same year I7,428 children were admitted to orphan asylums and institutions of like nature. These institutions are under the control of private, self-perpetuating corporations, composed of benevolent and publicspirited citizens. The details of internal management are usually under the direction of an associate board, composed of women. Most of these asylums existed prior to the passage of the ” Children’s Law” of 1875, and a few have been established since that time for the express purpose of caring for this class of children. All these institutions are subject to the visitation and inspection of the State Board of Charities, to which they make an annual report concerning receipts and expenditures and admission and discharge of children. The counties pay a stated amount per week for the support of each child, the amount being fixed by the board of supervisors, and being usually somewhat less than the actual cost of the support of the child. The deficit is covered by voluntary contributions by the friends of the institution. In New York City, however, the allowance is sufficient in most cases to cover the entire cost of maintenance, and in 1892 to leave in nine cases a surplus amounting in all to $69,498. Except in Erie County, which employs two agents for placing out, the work of removing the children from-the asylum to families is left usually, and in New York City entirely, to the managers of the institutions.

The advantages claimed for the system as a whole are: —

a. The absolute removal of the whole administration from the influences of partisan politics and the devastations of the spoils system.  b. The enlistment in each community of the active interest of a considerable number of public-spirited and benevolent citizens, who, being managers of the institution or otherwise connected therewith, visit the institution with more or less regularity, give careful attention to the details of administration, and in many cases take an active interest in the welfare of the individual children. c. The removal of the dependent children of the State from all connection with paupers and pauper administration, thus effectually saving them from the taint and stigma of pauperism.

It is argued against the system:

a. That it greatly increases the number of children to be cared for. By removing the stigma which attaches to admission to a poorhouse, and by securing to each child the religious training which its parents prefer, the natural unwillingness of parents to part with their children is in large degree removed, the result being that many children are thrown upon the public bounty who would never be permitted by their parents to enter a poorhouse.

To a less extent this phase of the difficulty is, however, met in every attempt to remove children from poorhouses; and in every State it is a serious problem to give the children proper care without subjecting hard-pressed parents to improper temptations to give up their responsibilities.

b. By paying a per capita allowance for the children, and allowing them to remain in the institutions at the will of the managers, the incentives to keep the number in the institutions small, either by a vigorous sifting of applications for admission or by placing the children in families as rapidly as possible, are largely removed. This objection has special force when the amount paid by the county covers the entire cost, or nearly the entire cost, of the maintenance of the children.

The present unfortunate state of affairs in New York City and some other large cities of the State is not due altogether to the law concerning the removal of children from almshouses. The penal code enacted in 1881 authorizes police magistrates to commit destitute children to charitable institutions, the expense of their support to be borne by the city; and in New York City at least this is the favorite method of commitment. But, however it came about, the situation certainly is serious when one child of every hundred in the whole State, and in New York City one child of every thirty-five, is being reared under the unnatural influences of institution life, prolonged in most cases for a period of several years. Institutions for the care of dependent and neglected children have attained in New York City such a luxuriant growth as has never before been seen in America, and I think not in the whole world. An institution containing only two or three hundred children seems to be of very moderate size when compared with our institutions containing five hundred children, a thousand, fifteen hundred, eighteen hundred, two thousand, twenty-five hundred.

Under these circumstances it is interesting to recall the prediction of Miss Florence Davenport Hill in “The Children of the State ” (p. 222). After a graphic description of the evils of institutional life, she says, “The beginning of the end, however, of such institutions was sighted when in April, x875, an act was obtained from the New York legislature forbidding the commitment of children to poorhouses.” In view of our later experience in large cities it would seem that that was only the beginning of the beginning, and that the end is not yet in sight.

California, under a somewhat similar system, supports one child of every hundred in the State in a private charitable institution.

2. The county system, used in Ohio, Connecticut, and to some extent in Indiana. The county system of Ohio, Connecticut, and Indiana, aims to provide in each county a temporary home for children, supported by public taxation and under the control of public officials. It is claimed for this system that the institutions may be kept small, thus reducing the evils of institutionizing to a minimum, and that local influences and the interest of benevolent people may be enlisted to nearly the same extent as in the private asylum system.

It is urged against this system that the large number of these homes, one in each county or one in every two or three counties, tends to increase the number of children to be cared for. It is the same Banquo’s ghost which appears in every field of charitable work. The provision for assistance seems to create or at least to suggest the need of help: the supply tends to create the demand. The tendency to enlarge the institutions is also fostered by a local pride more enthusiastic than intelligent. It must be said that the facts seem to give force to this objection. Ohio and Connecticut, while supporting fewer children in proportion to their population than New York and California, do provide for a considerably larger number than those States which have a single institution. Ohio supports one child to seventeen hundred of its population. Michigan, an adjoining State, supports one child to ten thousand population; Minnesota, one child to nine thousand; Wisconsin, one child to eight thousand. Connecticut, with its temporary home in each county, supports one child to eight hundred of the population. The adjoining State, Rhode Island, with a single institution, supports one child to three thousand population. It is a fact also that two of the temporary homes of Connecticut are larger than the School for Dependent Children of the whole State of Michigan or Minnesota or Wisconsin or Rhode Island.

3. The State system, used in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Kansas: By the State system is meant the establishment of a single institution in the State, supported by State taxation and under the immediate control of the State authorities, all public money being withheld from private institutions. An active placing-out system is made a part of the plan.

The advantages claimed for this plan are: —

a. By placing the children under the guardianship of the State and by removing them from the neighborhood in which they have lived, safeguards are provided against the undue unloading of children upon public support.

b. By making an active placing-out agency an integral part of the system, the duration of institutional life is made very brief, and children are soon restored to the more natural life of the family and the community. As a result of these two features, the number of children to be cared for at any given time at public expense is small, and the burden of taxation is never excessive.

It is urged against the State system: –

a. That it is subject to the influences of partisan politics and the uncertainties of the spoils system; that trustees, superintendents, officers, and teachers are apt to be selected, not because of fitness for their positions, but because of political services or influence; that, with every change of the political majority, the whole body of officials, as well as the Board of Control, will very likely be removed, and new and inexperienced persons of doubtful qualifications placed in charge; and that the plan does not enlist the co-operation and support of those citizens of the community who do not participate actively in politics.

The experience of these institutions furnishes arguments for and against this position. When one political party has been in the ascendency for a term of years, men of excellent qualities of mind and heart have been secured and retained as trustees and officers. In some cases, when the political majority has shifted, no serious changes have been made in the official staff; but in other cases, under like circumstances, the whole body of officials, together with the Board of Control, have been unceremoniously dismissed.

b. That a placing-out system is exposed to dangers as grave as those attending the asylum system. If children are scattered broadcast over the State or if their interests are not guarded by an efficient supervision, the results will be disastrous. It is certainly true that some of these State institutions have not at all times realized their ideal in this direction. The same danger, however, attends placing out from a county home or from a private asylum; and the question resolves itself into this, Can the State secure as efficient and reliable agents as private charity?

c. It is said, too, that conditions in different States differ,– that a system which works well in Michigan and Rhode Island would not necessarily work well in New York or Ohio or California.

4. The boarding system, used in Pennsylvania and in Massachusetts, in the latter State in connection with a State institution: The boarding system of Pennsylvania differs radically from these we have described, in that no institution is used. When the law was passed requiring the removal of children from almshouses, the county authorities were left free to make such other provision for the children as they desired. Most of the counties have accepted the co-operation of a private organization, the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania. Under their plan all children are sent directly to families, who are paid a reasonable sum for their care and maintenance. From these boarding homes they may be transferred to free homes, as in other States they are transferred from a central institution to free homes, or, as often happens, they are kept permanently and without payment for board after a few months or a year or two by the family which received them as boarders.

The advantages claimed for the plan are:

a. That the children are at all times subject only to the natural influences of family life.

b. That very many children who could not be placed in families without payment for board, because they are not attractive or are subject to some slight physical weakness or mental peculiarity or moral perversity, may find permanent homes in the community by being first boarded in families until their faults are corrected.

c. That safeguards are provided against the unloading of children upon the public in the fact that parents do not desire to see their children sent to other families, either temporarily or permanently.

The following objections are offered:

a. That the payment for children in families will reduce the demand for children in families without payment for board. It is claimed, however, by those who are familiar with the boarding system in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts that it assists rather than retards the finding of free homes.

b. That there is no assurance of the continuity of the system, since it all depends upon voluntary co-operation between public officials and a private society, either of whom may at any time adopt some other plan.

The Massachusetts system is, in its general features, a combination of the Pennsylvania boarding system and the State system of Michigan. There is a central State institution, the State Primary School, from which children are placed out in families, in free homes if approved free homes can be secured, in boarding homes if free homes are not available. Foundlings and other infants are boarded in families, from which many of them are adopted. Until recently children were not boarded after they had reached the age of ten years, but special cases may now be boarded for some time longer. The State Primary School is governed by a board of trustees: the placing in families and the boarding system are under the charge of the State Board of Lunacy and Charity. This State system is, however, only for the care of “the children of the State.” The cities and towns seem to have no relation to the State system, and to make whatever provision for their children they may desire. Nor does there seem to be any supervision of their work by a central authority.

This combination of the boarding system with the central State institution and the placing in families without payment seems to me to be worthy of special notice. It seems to be true that, as communities grow older, the facilities for placing out children without payment grow less, and the demand is limited more and more to children of certain classes and certain ages. It seems to me probable, therefore, that the State institutions of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Kansas may, not many years hence, find their facilities for placing out children without payment decreasing, and the number of children to be cared for increasing. If such should prove to be the case, it is to be hoped that they will consider the advisability of combining the boarding system with their present methods rather than enlarging their institutions or building new ones.

May we not hope and believe that from the volume of experience now being gained in all these varying methods there is being evolved a system more perfect than any one of them, and to which they will all gradually be conformed?

Source: Proceedings of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction at the Twenty-First Annual Session Held May 23-29, 1894 in Nashville, TN. Pp 119-132 (Accessed: 10/8/2014).




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