Homer Folks (1867 – 1963) – Social Work Pioneer, Advocate for Child Welfare and Public Health and Long Time Secretary of the State Charities Aid Society of New York
Introduction: In his position as an active leader in New York’s largest aid society, Homer Folks was an advocate for social reform on a major scale. During his lifetime Folks became a preeminent spokesman for the rights of children, women, and the mentally ill. He helped found the National Child Labor Committee in 1904 and was intimately involved in the preparations for the first White House Conference on Children in 1909.
Early History: Folks was born on February 18, 1867, in Hanover, Michigan, to farmer James Folks and his second wife, Esther (nee Woodliffe) Folks. He attended a one-room country school until he was twelve and then entered Hanover High School. After his graduation in 1883, Folks was offered the choice of a farm of his own or a college education. The young man chose the latter and in 1885 enrolled at Albion College in Albion, Michigan. He graduated in 1889 with a B.A. degree. Uncertain what profession or career to pursue, Folks followed the advice of one of his mentors and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the intention of studying at Harvard University for a year in order to make up his mind about the work he wanted to do.
While a student at Harvard, Folks was inspired by the lectures of Francis G. Peabody and George Herbert Palmer, both of whom encouraged service with the poorest members of society. While desirous of being of service to others, Folks also favored being actively involved in society. He wanted to participate in social change rather than simply encourage others to do so, and he determined to seek a career in social service. Offered a job as general superintendent of the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania after graduating from Harvard in 1890, he moved to Philadelphia and married Maud Beard on December 22, 1891. The couple would eventually have three daughters.
Professional Career: The Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania was founded in 1882 on the premise that children whose parents were unable to properly take care of them should be moved to the care of foster parents rather than to a government-run institution. In his first year with the Society Folks had furthered that aim by organizing a child-care training system for potential foster parents. While he stressed the importance of involvement by both state and local governments and pushed for the organization of departments to handle child welfare and related social issues, Folks also encouraged volunteerism on the part of concerned citizens.
Within a few years Folks was known as a leader in promoting training for social work in childcare. In 1893 he became the Secretary of the New York State Charities Aid Association. From that platform he was recognized as pioneer in child welfare. In 1904 he helped found the National Child Labor Committee and was intimately involved with the preparation for the first White House Conference on Dependent Children in 1909 and with the formation of the U.S. Children’s Bureau three years later. He was also a pioneer in mental and public health reforms.
When Folks arrived in New York in 1893, there was a bill in the New York State Legislature to have a system of hospitals for the insane. During the National Conference of Charities and Correction in 1905, the problem of the aftercare of the insane was discussed. Subsequently, Folks collaborated with Alexander Johnson, then head of the New York School of Philanthropy, to employ two students at Manhattan State Hospital as “aftercare workers”. This pioneering effort led to the formation of volunteer “aftercare committees” in all the New York State Hospitals. Folks’ agency continued to support this practice until 1911 when the State took over that responsibility. Over the years, Mr. Folks spoke widely on the problems of the aftercare of the insane, recommending the establishment of outpatient departments.
Another major concern of Folks was the escalating problem of tuberculosis, and he became a spokesman for early detection and treatment. During World War I, he was Director of the American Red Cross Civil Assistance. From 1913-1949 he was a member of the New York State Public Health Council. Twice he was elected Chairman of the National Conference of Social Work, the only person to be so honored.
During the depression years of the 1930’s, he served as an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on many welfare matters, and in 1940 he received the Medal of Honor awarded by the Roosevelt Memorial Association. He retired in 1947 and died in 1963 at his daughter’s home in Riverdale, NY.
Sources: NASW Social Work Pioneers – www.naswfoundation.org
Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America: Walter I Trattner, Editor (Greenwood Press, Inc., Westport, CT. 1986) p.295.