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A Report to the Board of Directors of the Community Service Society of New York, November 4 1940
by Anna Kempshall, Director of Family Service
Editor’s Note: (1) In 1939, the Community Service Society of New York was formed by the merger of two historical and important social service agencies: The New York Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor (founded in 1843) and the Charity Organization Society (founded in 1882).
Editor’s Note: (2) This report was written by Anna Kempshall, a nationally renowned social worker who received her social work diploma from the New York School of Philanthropy in 1913. The original document was one of many in a scrapbook believed to have been maintained by her older sister Helen Pinneo. The scrapbook was recently gifted to the Social Welfare History Project by Mrs. Elizabeth C. Adamson, a great niece, representing the Adamson, Ogden and Pinneo families. Some of the documents date back to 1917; however, their condition is fragile and difficult to transcribe. Nevertheless, a number of the documents have been transcribed and will be posted on the SWH Web site because of their importance. The writings of Anna Kempshall are valuable historical records of the experiences and challenges of family casework through two important periods of American history: the Great Depression and World War II.
Last year the Family Service had 19,373 children in the families under its care. Who are these children? They are the children of the unemployed, the widow, the widower, the father in prison, the mother who has deserted, the parent who is mentally or physically ill, the parents who are estranged, or the otherwise happy parents who are socially or economically handicapped.
Some of these children are loved and wanted, some are unloved and unwanted. Some are “good” and some are “bad”. Some are well and some are sick. But they are all children and upon them and their lives depends our future civilization. Are these the children of the poor? Yes, the children of the poor in spirit and in heart — of all classes, of all races, and of all creeds and colors.
The realization that there is nothing more precious than the life of a child places upon our caseworkers a grave responsibility. To understand the impact of, the currents and cross currents of the environment upon the delicate and elusive mechanism of a child’s mind and heart is a challenge to science, religion, education, and social work. Problems of children, cannot be met by a. formula — each child must be understood in the light of the meaning of the problem for him. It is not enough to know what sort of social resources the community affords. It is necessary also to understand what sort of problem the child has and what sort of child has the problem. This is all a part of the individualizing we call casework. Caseworkers must not only have access to financial and social resources, day nurseries, child guidance clinics, vocational advisors, etc., but must understand the meaning of the distress to each child.
Sometimes children need the same kind of thing, but for different reasons; and sometimes children will respond to the same stimuli with different emotions, such as fear, rage, love, or hate. The unemployed father may be resented or pitied. A child may assume the role of the dead parent and carry on young shoulders too heavy or crippling a burden. If the burden is too great, there is escape through illness, delinquency, or “the road”.
Children suffer acutely, and their bodies and souls are warped and twisted not only from physical deprivation but also from lack of love and trust. From the most sordid of backgrounds — a shiftless, deserting father, a drunken, prostitute mother — emerges a lad of 12, intelligent, industrious, and with a faith in the future. No, casework cannot cure all ills — it has no magic to make every home a happy home. These parents were beyond our power to reclaim. But not the child. He loved his mother and would not be separated from her. He had a need to be with her to “protect” her. She neglected him, she rejected him, she tortured his spirit. Was he to be forcibly removed from this home, forever fearful of what might happen to his mother? In response to the suggestion that he go away to school, he replied, “I feel as if I were hanging on the end of a rope over a deep pit. The rope might break and I would fall in and not find my mother there”. It took weeks of skillful, patient work on the part of the caseworker to help him see and understand what might be at the bottom of this “pit” he was so fearful of -– to strengthen, rather than weaken, his faith. Today he is one of the most reliable pupils in a good school. While he still sees and loves his mother she is no longer absorbing his vitality. His love and protectiveness for her are directed into more wholesome channels. To accomplish this, the caseworker needed the resources of vocational testing, a school, money for books and clothes, and above all, a knowledge of the child’s inner conflicts, — his fears, his hopes, his love, and his repressed hate.
Some children need long sustained contacts to ease handicaps and reduce pressures; others through quite simple adjustments are strengthened to find their own solutions; some are too incapacitated for present knowledge and skill to assist. In many instances the caseworker is in a strategic position to help children within the family into ways of affection, unselfishness, and respect for the rights of others, which are the basis of later success in personal and social adjustment.
If we believe in the individual, respect the dignity and integrity of youth, we will continue with patience, bringing to bear all that the sciences, psychiatry, and religion can contribute to working through the problems of the young, realizing that all hope for the future lies in their hands.