Monday, August 18, 2014

Childcare in the Civil War Era


The contemporary idea of childhood in the United States is distinctly domestic: it regards the home and its appendages, such as schools and churches, as the child's proper places. Although U.S. attitudes toward childhood and children have European roots, approaches to child welfare in parts of Europe and non-Western societies often differ from American attitudes, since they have included the separation of children from their homes for purposes of maturation, APPRENTICE-SHIP, and early employment. From the American view, such practices are aberrant, harmful, and tantamount to ABANDONMENT in so far as they fall short of providing children with nurturing, parental home environments. Contemporary Western notions of abandonment sprang from this particular representation of domestic childhood and from normative judgments about a child's actual and ideal life course.

The Years Prior to the Civil War
Dependent children are those who, through various circumstances, become dependent on private charity or public assistance. In the United States, ideas about children's welfare were inherited from the English Poor Laws under the principle of parens patriae, whereby the state is the ultimate parent of all children. In the colonial era, this resulted in two forms of relief for dependent children: indoor relief (assistance to parents in the home) and outdoor relief (alternate homes, such as ORPHANAGES and poor houses). For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, public administration was local and the household was the immediate source of authority, with the result that dependents had little direct contact with the state. Many thousands of children were brought to the colonies as indentures and the death rate in the Chesapeake was high for children as well as adults. Consequently, the indenture system tried to maintain household governance and the family system by placing children in homes while training them for future employment. It made little difference whether the child was poor, illegitimate, or orphaned and, regardless of cause, children who were left on their own were regularly indentured or apprenticed. Indenture afforded a reasonable solution to uncared-for children while reducing public responsibility for colonial dependents, including those who were orphaned, whose parents were unfit, or who misbehaved. In 1648 Virginia, for example, following the British model, the state could remove a child from a home with parents who were overly fond or if the child was "perversely obstinate."

The first private orphan asylum in North America appeared in 1738 in Georgia, and the first public orphanage did not open until a half century later, in 1790, in South Carolina, with 115 orphans. Others followed in New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The founding of orphanages demonstrates that by the late eighteenth century, congregate alternatives for dependent children were being tried. Whereas binding out and indenture favored the family setting and foreshadowed the subsequent shift to FOSTER CARE and ADOPTION, almshouses and orphanages foreshadowed a preference for congregate institutions.

The years prior to the Civil War witnessed a movement away from indenture and apprenticeship toward the rise of congregate institutions, based in rising objections to indenture for children, and an increase in the real numbers of dependent children. Moreover, as industrialization changed the size and nature of the family, the value of children shifted from their productive contribution to the family to parental bonds of affection for the child. The nineteenth-century cult of motherhood eroded the traditional patriarchal control over child custody, forging instead a romanticized ideology in which children were innocent and vulnerable and mothers had a special responsibility for protecting them. In 1838, a new judicial policy marked the shift from father's rights to mother's love in the adjudication of child custody. EX PARTECROUSE declared that children have needs, not rights; that they need custody, not liberty; and the place for a child was school, not prison. While the case is noted for shifting the parental responsibility of child custody from the father to the mother, it was also pivotal for legitimizing and elevating the practice of institutional custody.

Between 1820 and 1860, 150 private orphanages were founded across the United States, some in response to EPIDEMICS that orphaned many children. Orphanages were largely religious and largely for white children under ten years of age. Most orphanages indentured the older children, and few received public funds. It was not long before congregate institutions became overcrowded, underfunded, and less and less rehabilitative. By mid-century, congregate institutions that only a few years earlier had been models of care were losing their luster. An 1855 report to the New York State Legislature chastised almshouses for the outrageous conditions in which they sheltered some 3,000 children under sixteen. The problems were intensified with the children orphaned in the Civil War and as numbers of immigrants multiplied. Nevertheless, despite criticism, congregate institutions grew through the end of the nineteenth century.

Placing Out
The idea of PLACING OUT marked a departure from apprenticeship, indenture, and congregate homes. Whereas removing children from the home under those circumstances did not necessarily sever ties with the children's families, placing out included permanent transfer to foster or adoptive homes, illustrated by the NEW YORK CHILDREN'S AID SOCIETY(NYCAS) and CHARLES LORING BRACE's famous ORPHANTRAINS in the mid-nineteenth century. Brace was a critic of congregate institutions, and the NYCAS placed thousands of dependent youth in private homes. (NYCAS, however, over-whelmingly favored white western European children, who represented 95 percent of its placements; it could not or would not place black or eastern European children.) Brace romanticized the image of children being "rescued" from urban streets and placed in families in the midwestern countryside and the plains states. He spoke passionately about the practice that eventually affected some 200,000 youngsters over seventy-five years. As rapid urbanization, immigration, and industrialization widened social class divisions, reformers like Brace looked to protect society by removing children from those "dangerous" classes.

Brace's objective was to place children in caring, moral, and stable family environments, and this program signaled the triumph of the ideology of domesticity, with its emphasis on affection, romantic marriage, and innocent children. He preferred foster care to adoption, as most of his children's parents were destitute but not absent or dead, and ties of affection and Christian charity to legal bonds. Brace found a middle ground between involuntary apprenticeship or indenture on the one hand and adoption on the other. With the support of New York's upper-class reformers, he shared their concern for the waif as well as disdain for the poor and immigrant parents.

In the colonial era children outside the bloodline could not share legal status with natural-born children. However, by the mid-nineteenth century the courts, under the best interests of the child doctrine, were more willing to consider the place of affection, choice, and nurture in the family structure. In 1851, two path-breaking court cases terminated the natural rights of birth parents. More and more, judges moved the parent-child relationship from patriarchal kinship lines to a contractual relationship that reflected sentimental ties and emphasized child nurture. That year, Massachusetts passed an act to provide for the adoption of children, substituting artificial ties for those of birth. By the end of the century, the Massachusetts model existed in almost every state, and adoption became routine.

While Brace's system of fostering challenged institutional care for dependent children, asylums continued to grow in size and number but increasingly were on the defensive. In 1864 the Boston Children's Aid Society (BCAS), for example, rejected long-term care in favor of keeping the families intact to the greatest extent possible. Where Brace wanted homes for children who were homeless or in jeopardy, the BCAS developed strategies for placing dependent children, paying other families to board them, and finding places where single mothers could both work and keep their children, carefully selecting and monitoring the foster homes. Taken together, these projects encouraged the formation of foster care and the passage of adoption laws intended to place children in family environments where the relocated children would be treated like natural sons and daughters. Brace wanted to place children permanently, separated from their birth families, which, especially regarding poor or immigrant families, he considered to be incapable of raising good "American" children. The BCAS, on the other hand, wanted to place children in ways that their parents could see them, and perhaps reclaim them when their situations improved. Moreover, Brace and his peers succeeded in articulating new language that included the rights of the child, not for independence or personal liberty, but for safety from risk and corruption. Welfare policies were profoundly influenced by the idea of the child as a special category of citizen, and state-sponsored children's institutions supported this view. By the end of the nineteenth century, the best interest of the child doctrine facilitated the creation of age-segregated state laws restricting child labor and prohibiting children from buying tobacco or alcohol. It also shaped adoption and custody laws. The new laws rested on an assessment of the child's needs and the public good rather than the parents' interests. Poor and black families after the Civil War were particularly vulnerable to having their children bound out for apprenticeships without parental approval, and the best interest of the child idea sometimes resulted in injustices as the authority to control the child shifted from the parent to the state.

Image: Civil War Cincinnati Sisters, ca 1864. Carte de visite. Winder's Cartes de Visite Photograph Gallery No. 373 Central Ave, opp Court, Cincinnati, O.


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