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Vermont Department of Public Welfare: 1927

Richard K. Conant Advises Vermont To Widen Its Program of Social Service (1927)

Dept. of Public Welfare Should Supervise All Privately Conducted Charitable Agencies, Stimulate Town Planning Boards For Zoning, Good Housing, etc., Richard K. Conant Tells Vt. Conference Of Social Work At Montpelier



MONTPELIER, JAN. 19.  ‐‐  A State Department of Public Welfare should, in addition to supervising its own state institutions and local public institutions, also supervise privately conducted charitable agencies and secure their cooperation in a state‐wide program of social service, Richard K. Conant, Massachusetts commissioner of public welfare, stated at the open forum of the Vermont Conference of Social Work in Representatives Hall this evening.  The conference was in session throughout the afternoon and evening at the State House and several speakers on social problems, both from Vermont and other states, were heard.

Mr. Conant declared that a State department of public welfare, as a part of its program, should stimulate town planning boards for the development of zoning, good housing and other matters of town planning for the building of better cities.

The public welfare department “concerns itself with the same classes of people as were herded together in public almshouses 100 years ago,” said the speaker.  “There, in local almshouses and workhouses, combined usually with a pest house nearby, all of our modern problems could have been found in their beginnings. Chained in the garrets or imprisoned in barred rooms were the village idiots and simple women who would now be recognized as feeble‐minded.  There were tramps, vagrants, and minor offenders who were committed to the workhouse, and there were the dependent, neglected, and in many places even the delinquent children sent under court commitment.  The women with illegitimate children went into the almshouses to have their babies and were immediately discharged into the town again without supervision.  There were the pauper families, the chronic sick and the aged and in the pest house were the tubercular.”

Mr. Conant pointed out how, in the evolution of our modern system of state institutions, these classes have been separated.  He said every state should have a bureau of mental hygiene to conduct mental clinics in connection with the State hospitals and habit clinics in connection with both the hospitals and the schools. “A state department of public welfare, where there is not a separate department of mental diseases, should conduct a continuing census and registration of the feeble‐minded with school clinics and special classes for the mentally retarded children.”


At the afternoon session, the high points brought out by both Dr. Truman J. Allen of the Brandon State School for the Feeble‐Minded, and Dr. H. E. Chamberlain, of the National Committee of Mental Hygiene, New York City, who has been working on the eugenic survey in Vermont, were the inadequacy of any program for feeble‐minded people in gross to care for the individual, and also the special training required for those engaged in the care of such cases.

Dr Allen emphasized the purposes of a program as both eugenic, that seeks to limit the production of feeble‐minded, and humanitarian, that has to do with the care and development of the individuals. Both purposes, he said, go hand in hand, and one is not to be over‐emphasized at the expense of the other.  The towns must share their part of the burden.  Policies must be centralized, efforts decentralized.  The aim in general is to limit propagation and no one method is sufficient.

The institutional and extra‐institutional methods by which this program may be carried out were described by Dr. Allen.  Vermont needs an enlargement of its facilities for caring for the feeble‐minded.  Extra institutional methods include identification by some such census method as is employed in other states, examination of backward children, clinics, special classes in public schools, more intensive training for physicians, teachers, and social workers, enforcement and uniformity of marriage laws, special provision for the criminal defective and sterilization. Public sentiment in Vermont will bring about success in this program.

Prof. Henry F. Perkins of Burlington, director of the eugenic survey of Vermont, brought to the attention of the conference the “lessons” from the survey.  He stated that one hopeful feature of a distressing situation is that the people of the State have begun to wake up to conditions. The workers who have conducted the survey, Professor Perkins said, have had the opportunity to investigate 2,700 individuals in 22 families, examining the records through several generations. One of the prominent lessons that stands out is the amount of pauperism in these defective families, 562 of those whose records were studied being wards of the State or towns, 141 of them in institutions and 161 definitely feeble‐minded.

He estimated that there are probably 5,000 mentally defective in the State, a ratio of about 1 to 70 of the total population of 350,000. The condition is no worse than in other States, but it creates a serious situation.  In discussing remedies, he urged greater support to State institutions, but stated that to completely segregate all these unfortunate individuals is something that cannot be done all at once.  As a second remedy,
therefore, he urged sterilization, predicting that a bill to provide for such treatment will be brought before the present Legislature.

He and his fellow workers in taking the survey have noted a great laxity in regard to marriage laws.

Mrs. H. B. Shaw of Burlington, clerk of the Vermont Children’s Aid Society, Inc., offered several suggestions for further improving the condition of children in the State, as follows:  Prohibit the marriage of children
under 16 years; forbid the adoption of children without approval of court of record and thorough investigation of the case; increase aid to widowed mothers in order that they may support their children without leaving the home; taking over by the State of traveling “nomads” who go from town to town and are dependent on public support; more attention to medical inspection in schools, which has fallen off since the State discontinued the district health officers in 1923; preventing children from going to work in factories without a physical examination to see if they are fit for the work; appointment of a commission, either by the governor or legislature, to study the question of legislation in behalf of children, study the laws of other states and report to the legislature of 1929, with recommendations.  Mrs. Shaw closed with a plea for more attention to
human life in law making.

Medical Inspection Discussed

Following Mrs. Shaw’s talk, discussion centered around the subject of
medical inspection in schools.  Miss Helena Pembroke, one of the nurses employed by the Vermont Tuberculosis Association, to carry on medical inspection in schools during the last year, said that in her work she found 500 children underweight out of 1400 examined.

C. H. Dempsey, commissioner of education, said only 39 out of 273 school districts now have medical inspection in schools.  He believed there were 40,000 children in schools without inspection and he hoped that something might be done to improve the situation.  He felt the solution was in inspection by physicians appointed by the towns.

Dr. C. F. Dalton of Burlington, secretary of the State Board of Health, was asked by Professor K. R. B. Flint of Northfield if it was necessary to have specialists in the eye, ear, nose, and throat as school inspectors.

Dr. Dalton replied that he did not believe school inspection needed to be made by specialists, because it was the work of the inspectors only to discover the trouble.

Dr. Dalton was further asked if the State Board of Health had approved the action of the Vermont Tuberculosis Association, taken last evening, in voting to send out nurses for school inspection work.  Dr. Dalton replied in the affirmative.  He said that a recent survey shows that our of 248 towns in Vermont there are 120 which have no physician at all and many which have only one or two. Under these circumstances, a physician cannot be expected to give attention to medical inspection of schools.  He thought the nurses could handle the work very well.

Source:  Burlington Free Press, January 20, 1927.