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Place: New York City
160 years ago the types of social services currently available for families in crisis in North America either didn’t exist or were in their most embryonic form. Tens of thousands of orphaned, abandoned, or extremely poor children, some as young as five or six, roamed the streets of New York alone.
For years the “solution” to this problem was to send stray children to prison or almshouses where they slept and ate next to adults who in many cases were alcoholics, violent criminals, or severely mentally ill. It was, in short, a horrifically inappropriate place for a child.
Charles Loring Brace had a different plan: foster care. In 1853 he founded the Children’s Aid Society and soon began sending older children to live with new families. Most were preteens or teenagers (because host families preferred older kids, especially if the family lived on a farm and needed help with the chores) but some were as young as six.
Many kids were actually placed right in New York City, perhaps even in the same neighbourhood they had lived in previously. Others travelled by the dozens by train to rural communities. In each small town the children were lined up and eventually, hopefully taken home by someone.
Theoretically prospective families were screened by the town minister or physician before being allowed to take one or more children home. In practice, though, nearly anyone who wanted a child from the orphan train could take one.
Some families were looking for free labour. Others were hoping to have what we would think of as an adoption – the children they took home were treated with the same affection that would be given to a biological son or daughter.
Were the orphan trains a success?
Yes. Children had the option of ending the placement if they weren’t happy. And given the other options – prostitution, working for starvation wages in a factory, joining a street gang – taking a chance on a new family was often their best shot at a better life. At least two orphan train kids, John Brady and Andrew Burke, grew up to become successful politicians who cited their good experiences with foster families as a turning point in their lives. Between 1853 and 1929 about a quarter of a million kids were placed into new homes through this (and other similar) programs.
No. Other children were placed with families who neglected or abused them or who were really only in it for the free labour. There was little to no effort put into screening out families with less-than-pure motives and most placements did not last until the child became an adult. Sibling groups were often split up. Some kids should never have been included in this program in the first place – they already had loving families who never consented to this arrangement.
It’s ridiculously easy to judge the mistakes that were made by the Children’s Aid Society but Charles created this program with the best of intentions. There’s a reason why he is considered the father of the modern day foster care system – he wanted to give these kids a second chance in life at a time when most people didn’t think they were worth the trouble.
Can a system that is still be improved upon today still be considered a force for good?
I’d say yes.
Interested in reading more about Charles Loring Brace and the orphan trains? Click here.