Congregationalist minister Charles Loring Brace was emphatic that the thousands of miserable homeless children roaming the streets of nineteenth-century New York had the “same capacities” and the same importance “as the little ones in our own homes.” That was an essential part of his Christian creed. But Brace also believed that “habits of life and the inner forces which form character” ultimately drive success and happiness, so it is important for unformed children to be given both love and good examples. He didn’t like traditional orphanages, which he thought fostered passivity and dependence, so in 1853 Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society and began helping boys and girls leave the streets and enter lodging houses that required small payments from the children to remind them of their capacity to support themselves. The society offered workshops and industrial schools that taught trade skills.
Brace eventually came to the view that the “orphan trains” the society established later were the best long-term solution to abandonment. These transported tens of thousands of children to permanent new homes across the country, especially on the frontier. A precursor to the modern foster-care system, the placements had economic value to the receiving family as well as security and emotional value to the child. Successful results varied from mutual economic support to full-blown substitute-family bonds. These out-placements were a great improvement on traditional indentured servitude because either the child or the host family could end the arrangement at any time. To help ensure the children’s proper treatment, the Children’s Aid Society used local community leaders to guide and supervise placements.
Because his appeals to New York’s wealthy found willing ears, Brace was able to build his aid work to a very large scale. The Astors, Dodges, and Roosevelts all made regular and generous donations, but there was also a wide and faithful base of small-scale supporters who sustained the society’s work with gifts of money, clothing, supplies, and volunteer time.
A 1917 CAS annual report noted that the program’s alumni included two governors, two district attorneys, two sheriffs, two mayors, a justice of the Supreme Court, two college professors, 24 clergymen, and 97 teachers. Though its mission has changed, the society still exists as one of America’s largest child-welfare agencies. It created the first PTA, first visiting nurse service, first free school-lunch program, first free dental clinics, and first day schools for handicapped children.
- Stephen O’Connor, Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed (University of Chicago Press, 2004)
- Society website, childrensaidsociety.org