A Review of The Children's Home History
By: Kathleen Hempstead
Celebrating 140 years of service to NJ children & families
The fate of a young orphan in the nineteenth century was often quite grim. Adoption as a formal institution was relatively rare, and foster care existed largely for older children who were able to contribute significantly to the income of their foster families. Until the late nineteenth century, orphans without other resources were often placed in almshouses, where they lived with "the aged, the insane, the feeble-minded and the diseased"--the homeless poor, most of whom were adults. Criticism of the placement of children in almshouses mounted during the latter half of the century. A Select Committee appointed by the New York Senate in 1856 declared them to be, "the most disgraceful memorials of public charity", and their investigation yielded evidence of "filth, nakedness, licentiousness, general bad morals...(and) gross neglect of the most ordinary comforts and decencies of life." For the young, they were deemed to be "the worst possible nurseries." State after state passed legislation barring the placement of children in almshouses during the late nineteenth century, while the number of county institutions for dependent children grew. The casualties of the Civil War accelerated this trend, and with the specific intent of sheltering these newly created orphans, the Union Association of The Children's Home of Burlington County was formed.
The Children's Home(TCH) was founded April 4, 1864, and incorporated in 1867. Although originally intended as a home for orphans, from the beginning The Home took children who had at least one parent living. Early records show that these children came from homes marked by poverty, disability, and often alcoholism and mental illness. In such cases, surviving parents were asked to make a contribution toward the payment of the child's board. Often the sum was set at fifty cents or a dollar per week.
My guess is that at the time of its origination, The Home could accommodate no more than 10 children, but in the early 1870's it moved from its location on Brainard Street to a house on the corner of Garden and Clover Streets, in Mt. Holly. In 1879, an addition was built onto this house, expanding The Home's capacity to approximately 25 children.
During the early years at The Children's Home, thorough records were not kept, but it appears that the majority of the children were under eight years old, and many were under five. The Home's constitution, adopted in 1867, prohibited children over twelve, except in unusual circumstances. Approximately 60 percent of these children ultimately left The Home by being "placed out", or bound as indentures to families in Burlington County. Once placed in families, the children were expected to work at a trade and contribute to the family income until they had come of age, at which time their family was obliged to give them a new suit of clothes. Most of the other children in The Home were ultimately reunited with their parents or with other relatives.
The original founders of The Children's Home were women from the Mount Holly area. There was a Board of Managers, from which a slate of officers was chosen. Committees were formed which were in charge of the various aspects of the administration of The Home, as there was no staff except for a matron and a teacher.
Much of the work of the officers and managers concerned the solicitation of funds, as, at this time, all support for The Home came from the citizens of Burlington County. Early annual reports list donations from sources such as Temperance League meetings and Strawberry Festival. There were also detailed lists of individual contributions, many of which were for one dollar or less. Donations in the form of provisions, clothing and fuel were eagerly solicited; in fact, the members of the board and others, beginning in 1871, made an annual door to door donation visit, during which contributions of all types were sought.
The early appeals for funds emphasized the missionary aspect of The Home's work, reminding the reader that homeless children were the responsibility of the public. Writes the recording secretary in 1872, "We invite all who love the Lord Jesus Christ, regardless of their denominational preferences to help us in this work, so that we may be enabled to feed, clothe, instruct and save these children to society, and with God's blessing, to heaven." More secular, yet equally plaintive, is the appeal from the report of 1871:
Help us till our work be done,
That no more may houseless roam;
Bid each little wandering one,
Welcome to The Children's Home."
The fortunes of The Home improved considerably during the latter years of the nineteenth century. An annual excursion to Atlantic City was begun in 1879, and a Christmas Dinner started in 1887. By 1890, The Home contained 37 children and was refusing applications from all over the county due to lack of space. Those children who were old enough attended the on-premises school, while several of the older ones went to the public school in town. While affiliated with no specific denomination, "wholesome moral training" was a part of The Home's stated mission; accordingly the children attended churches of different denominations in turn. In 1893, the Burlington County Board of Freeholders agreed to contribute $1.25 per week for the board of children whose parents could not pay.
The year 1906 saw a significant improvement in The Home's situation. A bequest of a large brick farmhouse on Pine Street in Mount Holly, located on ten acres of land, was made by a Mr. Edward T. Dobbins in memory of his mother, Mary A. Dobbins. The new house was fitted with many modern conveniences and had been remodeled by Mr. Dobbins specifically for the purposes of The Home. This bequest brought The Home much notoriety, and the list of contributors grew.
Notes the recording secretary in 1907, "The Home stands today on a financial basis which far exceeds the hope of the most sanguine. This shows how much such an institution was needed, for otherwise some of its little inmates would have been thrown on the cold mercies of the world, without the Christian influence under which the children are today."
In 1909, the White House held its first conference on the welfare of dependent children. One of the primary results was a rejection of institutionalization and the "placing out" of dependent children in favor of subsidizing destitute mothers so that their children could stay at home. Theodore Roosevelt, in reporting the findings of the conference to Congress, spoke in terms which were reflective of the anxieties of the Progressive Era, saying "The ranks of criminals and other enemies of society are recruited in an altogether undue proportion from children bereft of their natural homes and left without care." This advocacy of home care for destitute children resulted in many states between 1911 and 1931. Ultimately, this Mother's Aid legislation would be incorporated into the Aid of Dependent Children Program under Title IV of the Social Security Act.
This climate of anti-institutionalism does not seem to have affected the number of applications to The Children's Home. In the Annual Report of 1913, the secretary reported plans to build a boys' dormitory. Much of the cost of the construction was paid for by a donation from Mary A. Dobbins, sister of Edward T. Dobbins. That same year, Mary A. Dobbins donated ten one thousand dollar bonds to The Home's endowment fund. Clearly the Dobbins family had become an important benefactor of The Home, and this was to continue for many years.
In 1915 the annual report stated that there were 41 children in residence at The Home, the increased capacity due to the new dormitory. Many of the children were attending the school on the premises, which was now under the supervision of the Mt. Holly Public School System. Perhaps in response to the anti-institutional sentiment of the times, the recording secretary noted that the ideal of The Home is "to exert a mother's care over all the little ones." The statement of The Home's mission was also included in the annual report and is significantly more secular in tone than were those from the nineteenth century: "The object of The Home is to rescue destitute and neglected children from poverty, vice and crime, to provide for the homeless and the orphan comfortable shelter and kindness, to bring them under wholesome mental and moral training, endeavoring to form in them good habits and principles and thus fit them to be good citizens." Note the lack of any reference to spiritual salvation, and the more blatant reference to the potential for adverse societal consequences if "destitute and neglected" children were not cared for properly. The secretary's concerns about poverty, vice and crime are similar to Roosevelt's 1909 comment about "criminals and other enemies of society", and both reflect the heightened awareness of social problems brought about by rapid immigration and urbanization which motivated many Progressive Era reformers. The 1915 report also mentioned that a lodge had been built on the grounds of The Home to house a farmer who would care for the crops grown on The Home's grounds.
In 1921, the secretary notes that children are still being secured places in good families where they are brought up to some useful employment, but it is also noted that The Home maintained supervisory powers over these children. This indicates that the institution of "placing out" was becoming more similar to what is now called foster care, in which foster parents are paid for the room and board and supervised by a social agency, and less like the "placing out" system of the past. It is also noted in the report from 1921 that The Home received electricity that year, due once more to the generosity of Mary A. Dobbins.
During the 1920's, The Children's Home underwent a profound transition. The combination of improved mortality conditions, Mother's Aid legislation and the growth of the institution of adoption had worked to change the population of The Children's Home. The children at The Home were becoming on average, older, and were less likely to be orphans. As the population changed, The Home's program changed as well and began to include activities more appropriate for these new children. In 1923, a YMCA club opened in The Home, and in 1927 a Red Cross youth club was begun. In 1927, The Home contained 47 children, 11 of whom were past the fourth grade and attending public school in Mt. Holly. By this point, the Burlington County Board of Freeholders was contributing $4,000 a year towards the children's board. In 1928, the Northampton Board of Education agreed to subsidize a teacher for the home, and Mary A. Dobbins contributed $15,000 towards the building of a schoolhouse.
In 1929, Mary A. Dobbins died and left $400,000 to the endowment of The Children's Home. The interest from this fund is still paid to The Home yearly. It was for many years a significant portion of The Home's annual budget and has been an important source of financial stability. The new schoolhouse was completed at this time, and the secretary reports that there are 44 children at The Home in 1929.
Another significant development of this year was the decision to adopt the "cottage" system of residence. Mr. Murrell Dobbins agreed to build the first cottage, and the Board decided to pay for the second one, an undertaking which was made possible by the legacy of Frank Reily. These two cottages, which are still known as Dobbins Cottage and Reily Cottage in recognition of their respective benefactors, were completed in 1931.
During the 1930's, The Home took a number of important steps to respond to its changed population. In an attempt to provide training for older boys and girls who formerly would have been apprenticed to foster families, The Home began gardening and carpentry projects for the older boys. For the older girls, the Margaret Semple Cottage was opened in 1935, named for Margaret Semple, who served The Home in a variety of capacities for over 40 years. The Semple Cottage was intended to enable placing girls in homes "where they will be paid a living wage and they in return will help with the household duties, as a daughter of the house." Again, the transition occurring in the foster care system is apparent as this is a "placing out", but the terms of the agreement are now different. The child in this case is much older and is to be treated as a "daughter" of the house rather than a servant. It is also understood that the foster child will attend school. (Several years later the Semple Cottage was disbanded, due to a shortage of older girls. The cottage was used during the 1950's and 60's as a residence for the Executive Director and now houses administrative offices.)
The Children's Home seems, at the beginning of the 1930's, newly aware of its role as a "child care and training institution." The Annual Report from 1931 noted the visit of the Headmaster at the Church Farm School for Boys, who offered advice to the Board of Managers based on his own experience. This is significant, as it is the first evidence of formal communication with other workers in the field of child welfare and is a clear sign of the professionalization occurring at The Home. In 1931, the matron began to be called the "Director". This is another early sign of the bureaucratization and expansion of staff that would take place during the decade. In 1933 a new position, "Superintendent" was created, and a woman who had had experience in social work was hired. By 1934, the Superintendent and the Secretary were filing separate reports, and for the first time there were references to psychiatric as well as physical exams being given to all children applying for admission.
An historic movement occurred in 1937, when a full-time social caseworker was employed at The Home. In the report of the Executive Committee for 1937, the Chairwoman commented.
The employment of a full-time social caseworker marked a new era in the history of TCH. The Home, starting as a home for children orphaned by the Civil War, served for many years as a haven for parentless or semi-parentless children. As the state has assumed greater responsibility for such cases the function of The Home has changed, and in recent years it has largely been filled with children from broken homes, for whom the state does not assume responsibility.
Thus it can be seen that, by the end of the 1930's, The Children's Home has made a number of meaningful adjustments to its new situation. The management of The Home assumed a more modern bureaucratic form, as the number of officers, managers and committee members declined, while the staff grew in size. As a result of the professionalization of the field of child welfare, members of The Home's staff were increasingly likely to have had specialized training or experience. Finally, The Home adjusted to the increased age and length of tenure of their children by providing both vocationally oriented training and structured recreational activities that were deemed to be part of any child's "normal" upbringing.
In keeping with this desire to create a normal childhood environment at The Home, the on-premises school was disbanded in 1938, so that the children could make "helpful outside contacts" in the community of Mt. Holly. During the 1940's, the desirability of a non-institutional environment was repeatedly stressed. Not surprisingly, there is also evidence from this period that The Home was beginning to serve its children in an increasingly therapeutic or institutional capacity. The normal environment, therefore, was created carefully and was combined with elements of The Home's program, which were more structured and far less "normal". Thus, in 1939, there are references to the attempt to provide a non-institutional "family" environment for the children, yet at the same time a system of progress charts is initiated so that staff members can record observations about the children's attitudes and behavior in various areas.
The use of foster homes begins to increase again during the 1940's, and it is clear that by this time the foster care system had become much more like what it is today, temporary placements for children from disrupted families. Notes the Superintendent in 1940, " From the old, well-intentioned system of binding on apprenticing children has evolved the present foster home program. After our children have become thoroughly adjusted in living in The Home and the community, they may be placed, under our supervision as members of private families."
As has been shown, 1929-54 was a period of bureaucratization and professionalization at The Children's Home. It will be seen that 1955-87 is another time of transition, as The Home alters its program many times to meet the ever changing needs of an evolving population. If 1929-54 is an age of bureaucratization and professionalization, the years 1954-87 mark a time of flexibility and specialization.
In the 1958 Annual Report, the director of The Children's Home noted that there was a significant trend in the population of children served by The Home. The children at The Home, he reported, were increasingly likely to have come from families full of "discord", to have failed in previous placements, and to "act out". He warned against the dangers of a childhood enshrouded in "neglect, parental and community apathy," and urged the members of the board to be mindful of the growing problems of troubled children.
In the 1950's, The Children's Home began to be reimbursed by the State of New Jersey for the cost of room and board for each child. The 1950's are also significant as they saw the creation of an executive administrative position, "Director", which was filled by a professional in the field of child welfare. Another interesting development of this decade was the decision to accept black children into The Home. This occurred in 1958 and was justified in one of the monthly reports of the Executive Committee on the grounds that children from other counties were being accepted, while qualified black applicants from Burlington County were being denied admission. (It is interesting to note that a similar liberalization of admissions criteria had occurred in the early forties when it was decided that the residents of The Children's Home should not be limited to those who were of "legitimate" birth status.)
The report of 1961 refers again to the change in the nature of the children at The Home. The Director describes dangerous "fatigue and pressure" on the staff and notes: "There is a general pattern of extreme sensitivity and acting out on the part of the present institutional population." This he relates to the increasing pressures of life in the world at large "as the intensity within our population increase, and this is natural." He describes the added cost and strain resulting from such a population but concludes with resolve: "There is no going back...nor standing still...as the social and family problems of the whole outside world continue to swell and swirl."
It is clear that the staff of The Children's Home believe that they are living in a time of great social unrest and that this is responsible for the increasingly anarchic behavior of the children. In 1962, the Director notes in his annual report that it "must be difficult for children without security to live in the times of stress and conflict." He faults "society" for dealing "solely with symptoms and avoiding the realities of the diseases of society and the problems that exist..." He urges more attention to be paid to the strengthening of basic character as a part of casework and suggests new ways to organize the cottage houseparents so as to provide more supervision. There is a true note of despair in the conclusion of his report, as he urges measures to prevent the development of emotional problems in children. He describes the staff and Board of the Children's Home as being, "among a select few who are in a position to see the results of an indifferent and apathetic society."
It is certainly true that the early sixties were turbulent years in American history. Already existent Cold War anxieties were fueled by the hawkish military posturing of the Kennedy Administration. The Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban Missile Crisis did nothing to allay these worries. Civil Rights activism, particularly in the South, was accompanied by violent demonstrations. The assassination of John F. Kennedy served to aggravate underlying societal restiveness, which would explode into the political activism of the late sixties. These real sources of unease and disruption may well have had an effect on both the stability of families and the process of reaching adulthood.
Yet the trend observed in the population of The Children's Home is probably also due to the expansion of state services for moderately disturbed children within the public school system. This had the effect of shifting a relatively more seriously troubled population of children into residential centers like The Children's Home. In 1963, the New Jersey Bureau of Children's Services began to administer the foster care program, thus taking another relatively less disturbed population out of the hands of the Home.
During the 1960's, The Home can once again be seen to be making adjustments in their program to meet the needs of these more disturbed children. There is frequent discussion of negotiating a higher rate of reimbursement from the state. In-service training is designed to help the staff provide appropriate care for this new population. By 1966, the alarm of the late 50's and early 60's seems to be largely gone when the Director notes in his annual report: "Institutions can no longer be viewed as offering custodial care to the dependent child...but rather as offering treatment to the disturbed child..." By recognizing its evolution from a caretaking to a therapeutic institution, The Children's Home once again displayed its responsiveness to the changing needs of troubled children.
In 1968, The Children's Home was the subject of a survey by the Child Welfare League, which recommended that The Home prepare itself for the "very disturbed type of child it is getting and will get in the future." In the Annual Report of 1968, the President noted that "the Board of Managers advisedly recognized the need to adopt a treatment- oriented program." In that same year, the Director noted that "strides were being taken to change the agency from that of a care agency to that of a treatment service." The Home added more psychiatric services, including group therapy, to its program and affiliated formally with the Child Welfare League of America."
It was also decided in 1968 to accept only boys in the future, as the number of applications from girls was very small. By now The Home had been accepting applications from all over the state for quite some time. The boys ranged from 10-17. Although The Home was physically bigger than before, with the addition of Kempte Cottage in 1966, its capacity was significantly lower than the maximum of approximately 61 in the 1930's due to differences in the way in which the boys were housed. The capacity in 1968 was 36 boys, 12 in each cottage.
Interestingly enough, in 1967 the idea of an on-premises school at The Home began to be discussed once again. This time it came at the suggestion of the State of New Jersey, as it was felt that a growing number of children at The Home were in need of special education that the local public school system could not provide. In 1973, the on-premises school reopened, with eight boys attending. Today the school has a capacity of approximately 50 boys and is well equipped with classrooms, audio-visual, art, and music facilities. It is a certified special education school fully staffed with teachers and other educational personnel.
It is interesting to reflect upon the significance of the location of schooling in The Home's history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, on-premises schooling was desired in order to protect the then-young children from "injurious influences" present in the community. By 1938, it was believed that attending school in town would provide "helpful outside contacts", and the on-premises school was disbanded. In 1973, the on-site school opened again, at the urging of the state, as it felt that the local public schools were no longer adequately equipped to handle the special needs of The Home's population. Yet the preference for on-premises schooling is no longer correlated with a desire to retreat from the community. On the contrary, The Home still believes strongly in the value of "helpful outside contacts" and seeks ways for its boys to become involved in the community. In fact, The Home has recently embarked upon an aggressive public relations campaign, and sponsored a fair at The Home: September 1987, the theme of which was "Stepping Out". A program prepared for this event proclaimed that The Home wished "to let the community know who we are and to give you an opportunity to get to know us."
During the early 1970's the treatment aspects of The Home's program continued to expand. More training was given to the non-professional staff, a Director of Clinical Services was hired, and the childcare staff was enlarged. To attempt to meet the increased cost resulting from these additional services, different types of government aid were sought. Some food costs were covered by the federal lunches program, and The Home participated in the Federal Surplus Property Program.
In 1974, the Home applied for, and received accreditation as a residential treatment center from the Child Welfare League. The Home agreed to house and administer the Juveniles in Need of Supervision (JINS) program, a state-mandated shelter for non-delinquent youths in need of temporary housing. The JINS Program was given space in the old north and south dormitories. In 1979, the JINS Program moved to another site, as it was felt to be incompatible with the normal treatment program at The Home. It is now administered by Burlington County, and there is a JINS Program in each county of the state.
In the mid-seventies, The Children's Home felt the need for an expanded recreational facility for the boys. Accordingly, fund-raising was returned with vigor, and professional fund-raisers were hired in 1976. The drive for donations was successful, and a new gymnasium was completed in 1977. As team sports and other less competitive physical activities are used in the treatment program, the gym was an important addition to the Home's facilities.
In the late 70's and early 80's, The Children's Home continued to refine its program. A work/study program was initiated in 1979, as was family therapy. Cottage meetings and larger "community meetings" were held, so that residents could air their grievances and discuss different ways to resolve their problems. The idea of a "therapeutic community" was stressed, in which all aspects of The Home's program attempted to instill in the boys a more positive self-image and a sense of individual and social responsibility. This is still the basic premise of The Home's treatment philosophy.
Nineteen eighty-one saw the climax of a long-developing crisis at The Home. Increases in the provision of children's services by the state, largely through local school districts, had resulted in an incompatibility between the type of applicants The Home was receiving and the type of facilities that it had. As early as 1974, the Director of Residential Treatment had noted in the Annual Report that the increased services provided by the State of New Jersey within the public school system had led to an application pool at The Home which was "even more disturbed" than had previously been the case. By 1981, this incompatibility between the potential residents and existing services was felt to be quite serious. As a result, the number of eligible applicants was greatly reduced, and The Home was forced to close Dobbins Cottage. Notes the Director with despair: "There is a general mood throughout the state of unrest within agencies such as ours. There have been numerous closings of other agencies. Morale tends to be up and down, and it is increasingly difficult to attract quality staff to work with the increasingly troubled youth and to receive a limited compensation in these times of severe inflation."
Nineteen eighty-two was considered by the Director to be a year of "trauma" and "turnaround." By the end of the year, the census had improved, and by 1983 the Dobbins Cottage was once again open. Chastened by this near disaster, the Board stressed "accountability" as a goal for 1982. In response to the increasingly disturbed applicants to The Home, one of the cottages was made into an Intensive Treatment Unit (ITU), where increased therapy was provided for boys in greater need. By providing this extra care, The Home was able to negotiate increased funding from the state for those boys in the ITU. By 1987, all three of the cottages had been made into ITUs.
During the 1980's, the group and individual therapy programs were expanded upon and adapted to meet the needs of more seriously disturbed boys. A Therapeutic Activities Department was added in 1982 to allow boys to take part in structured activities such as art, music, and horticulture. Group and individual programs were refined. The ideal of a therapeutic community has persisted, and behavior modification and other types of psychodynamic strategies are employed by the staff as part of the treatment program. The treatment philosophy is carried over into the educational services of The Home, where social and emotional development, as well as academic achievement, are emphasized. Programs teaching independent living and social skills help to prepare the boys for the future, as does the Family Life Education Program, initiated in 1987, which provides instruction in areas such as intra-personal relationships, marriage and family living. A Job Partnership Training Act Program was initiated in the early 1980's to help provide vocational experiences for the boys, and a client-run bookstore was opened in 1984.
The Children's Home has increased its capacity to 45 boys. The Home has approximately 42 boys now, whose average age is 14. These boys stay at The Home for 16 months on average. The Home's discharge record is impressive; only 10 percent of its boys are transferred to more restrictive environments. Roughly 70 percent are returned to their families, while the other 20 percent move on to independent living or are transferred to parallel institutions. This compares favorably with the discharge records of similar institutions.
The future goals of The Home include the provision of group homes, which would provide a structured but relatively more independent living environment for older boys. Another one of The Home's plans is the inception of a community living arrangement program with local families, which would function somewhat like the foster care system. The Children's Home is also interested in refurbishing the boy's cottages, to make them more appropriate for the present population.
The story of The Children's Home is one which is worth recounting, not only for the purpose of learning about The Home, but to trace the history of the child's welfare movement as well. Demographic, economic, political and social factors have worked in concert to transform the situation of the dependent child in America. Improved mortality conditions, Mother's Aid legislation (now Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and the growth of the adoption and foster care systems have eliminated the need for orphanages. The foster care system has evolved from being an institution much like an apprenticeship, through a period of relative dormancy from 1900-1940, to a position now in which "professional" foster parents provide temporary homes for children from troubled family situations. The latter half of the twentieth century has also seen the rise of state programs, often administered through the public school system, designed for children who are emotionally disturbed. The state has also become increasingly willing to intervene in family situations and remove children from their parents' care. The Children's Home has remained flexible and responsive in the face of all this change, and in 1987 as in 1864 attempted to provide service for children in the way in which it is needed most.