The Removal of Children From Almshouses in The State of New York
A Presentation by the Hon. Wm. P. Letchworth, Member of the State Board of Charities Of New York, at the Twenty-First Annual Session of the National Conference Of Charities and Correction May 23-29, 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,” by Homer Folks
“The Boarding System for Neglected Children,” by Miss C. H. Pemberton
From what I have seen in an extended examination of town and city almshouses, county poorhouses, and county infirmaries,– institutions differing only in name,– I conclude that the condition of children in these places does not differ materially in any of the States, unless it be in the town almshouses of New England, in which, in consequence of limited numbers and closer supervision, the contamination is not so great. The moral and physical deterioration of children who are reared in the almshouse is so rapid that no State that tolerates the system can advance as it should in moral and intellectual strength, nor reduce to the minimum the burdens incident to the care of its dependent and criminal classes.
In the researches made by the New York State Board of Charities into the causes of pauperism and crime, in I874, overwhelming proof was found that the keeping of children in almshouses greatly increased the number of public dependants, and was a prolific source of demoralization, – that kind of demoralization which, becoming ingrained in the individual, proves hereditary, its evil influence corrupting generation after generation.
In Ulster County we found twenty-one children in the poorhouse, nine of whom were illegitimate. Three of them had pauper grandmothers, all had pauper brothers or sisters, four had pauper aunts, and three had pauper uncles. The father of two of the children and the mothers of fourteen of them were in the poorhouse.
In Essex County Poorhouse there were twenty-seven children, belonging to seventeen family groups, which produced seventy-four dependants in three generations.
In Herkimer County there were only six children in the poorhouse, but the institution was a pauper breeding-house. Three of the children had mothers in the poorhouse, and two had fathers there. The father of one of the boys was a pauper by habits and preference; and the mother had been a pauper from childhood, having grown up in the poorhouse. This family had produced eleven paupers in three generations.
I have cited these three county houses, not because they were the worst in the State, but to show the tendency under the old system to create hereditary pauperism in these institutions. As to the surroundings and associations to which these children were subjected, it would be pitiful to describe them; nor will I attempt to do so except by allusion to their condition in two or three counties.
In Steuben County, as was generally the case, the children were found in different parts of the poorhouse establishment. A girl eight or nine years old and three older children were in one of the wards in charge of a woman of debased character, who had a very irritable temper. She had been in the institution twenty months. She was strong and healthy, but could not retain for any length of time a home outside on account of her violent temper.
A group of boys were found in the wash-house, intermingled with the inmates, and around the cauldrons where the dirty clothes were boiling. Here was an insane woman raving and uttering wild gibberings; a half crazy man was sardonically grinning; and an overgrown idiotic boy was torturing one of the little boys, while securely holding him, by thrusting splinters under his finger-nails. The cries of the little one seemed to delight his tormentor as well as some of the older inmates who were looking on. The upper apartment of this dilapidated building was used for a sleeping-room. An inmate was scrubbing the floor, which was so worn that water came through the cracks in continuous droppings upon the heads of the little ones below, who did not seem to regard it as a serious annoyance.
The third group was in a back building, called the Insane Department. They were the most promising children of all, and yet the place was made almost intolerable by the groaning and sighings of one of the poor insane creatures. She was a hideous-looking object, and most of the time she was in an excited state. The children were not sent to school, nor was a school maintained upon the premises.
Reflecting upon the lot of these poor children, I was filled with unspeakable sadness. Born in destitution, bereaved of natural guardians, forced unwillingly upon the’charity of the world and into surroundings where the purity, sweetness, and innocence of childhood were subjected to such soul-chilling influences, it seemed as if, could the tender plaints of such reach the ears of legislators, their wrongs would be speedily redressed.
In the Kings County Almshouse I found 375 children. The sense of confinement here oppressed me. The close rooms, the enclosed porches, the dim and disagreeable halls, and, above all, the yard walled by an insurmountable barrier, high as though it enclosed a State prison, and without, so far as I could see, one blade of grass or green leaf, made the place seem to me like a miniature Bastile. I mentally exclaimed: Wherein have these little ones offended, that they should be treated as prisoners of State? Is their childhood, which should be the happiest portion of their lives, to be thus spent, without human sympathy, without at least occasionally strolling in the green fields and parks or inhaling the sweet breath of flowers? Herded together in such confinement, surging hither and thither like a drove of dumb animals, these children need not cause us surprise if they sink into the most degrading and brutish habits.
There were in the nursery and children’s hospital department of the New York City Almshouse 769 children, who had spent in the aggregate I, I5 years of child-life in the almshouse. Serving in the capacity of attendants, nurses, etc., upon these children, there were twenty-three pauper women and fifty-one women who belonged to the criminal class. Thirteen of the latter had been committed as vagrants, and thirty-eight for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. All of the criminals except four had been committed to prison more than once; and one of them, to use her own language, had been committed “times past counting for the past forty years.” These women had been transferred from the workhouse to the children’s department, and the pauper women from the almshouse department. They were the companions of the children, moulding their plastic minds, and forming their characters by constant association with them.
From the foundation of the State children had been received into the town and city almshouses; and after the establishment of county poorhouses, in I824, large numbers were admitted into these institutions. Through the efforts of Christian people to save children from commitment to these places of neglect, and to remove from the poorhouse such as had found a home there, orphan asylums were early established; but the gradual increase in population and in the number of dependent children made it impracticable to stem the ever-increasing tide of pauperism, and the bringing up of children under the poorhouse system grew into a gigantic evil. It was a subject to which our Board had given more or less attention since its organization, and one in which the Secretary of the Board, Dr. Charles S. Hoyt, manifested an abiding interest.
About the year 1873 a special effort was made to emancipate the State from this disgrace. By the action of boards of supervisors many counties were persuaded to take voluntary action to place their dependent children in families or orphan asylums; and in I875 an act was passed by the legislature, requiring that all children over three * years of age should be removed from the poorhouses and almshouses, and placed in families, orphan asylums, or other appropriate institutions before the first day of January, I876, and that none should be admitted to such institutions thereafter. At the time of the passage of this law there were about 3,000 children in the various poorhouses and almshouses of the State.
* This act was subsequently amended, limiting the age to two years.
I am happy to be able to state that this is one of the laws that has received the hearty approbation of the people. Although several bills have been introduced in the legislature to repeal it, or exempt certain counties from its mandatory provisions, none have been favorably reported from the committees to which they were referred. The law not only remains intact, but it is enforced through the praiseworthy action of county and city officials, the watchfulness of the members, officers, and visitors of the State Board of Charities and the State Charities Aid Association. Except such as are in the Children’s Hospital, under the care of the Commissioners of Charities and Correction of New York City, it may be said that there are virtually no healthy and intelligent children over two years of age in the poorhouses and almshouses of the State of New York.
Before the law referred to went into effect it was feared by som3 that there would be a large accumulation of children in the orphan asylums, and that there would be an increased tendency to institutionize children; but such did not prove to be the case. Considering the increase of population, there was hardly any perceptible increase in the ratio of children in the asylums for six years succeeding the passage of the law. This was owing doubtless to the adoption of a more active placing-out system by the asylums, to meet the emergency. Since I88I, however, there has been a very large increase of children under institutional care within the State, especially in the cities of New York and Brooklyn. This may be attributed in part to increased foreign immigration, a multiplication of institutions for children, in relaxed efforts to place out children in families, to a large increase of children who are partially supported by parents or guardians in asylums, but are not relinquished to the institution, and, I may add, to a change in the penal code in i881, whereby magistrates were authorized to commit delinquent children to asylums. This increase, however, is not universal, as, for instance, in Erie County, in which Buffalo is situated, the number of children in the various asylums has increased by only about fifteen, while the general population has increased 50o,ooo.
What has been accomplished in New York State can be accomplished in other States; and when at some future Conference it shall be announced from the platform that there are no children in the county poorhouses, county infirmaries, or town or city almshouses throughout the broad extent of our land, and that all dependent children under public care are removed from debasing associations and brought under elevating moral and religious influences, we may then feel that in one direction at least we have attained true wisdom in the dispensation of charity.
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