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Organization, Powers, And Duties of State Boards of Charity (1892)

The Organization, Powers, And Duties Of State Boards


By William P. Letchworth,

Chairman Of The Committee On State Boards Of Charities


Some thirty years ago, on a cold, raw day, a sad-faced woman left the door of the Albany City Almshouse. As she directed her steps toward the city, and drew her fluttering garments more closely about her, she thought that the piercing winds from the Helderberg Mountains were not more chilling than the administration of public charity. This woman was not a pauper, but was of a good family and possessed of some means with which she freely aided others. For years her energies had been specially directed to saving and comforting the sinful and sorrowing that had drifted into the forlorn places of this world. In pursuing her benevolent work she visited the Albany Almshouse, and was shocked at the state of things she found there. It was the old story,– utter indifference to sanitary laws, promiscuous association of the young and old of both sexes, disregard of the rules of common decency, brutal treatment, dirt, cold, foul air, putrid meat, insufficient clothing, etc. Miss Elizabeth Knapp (for that was the visitor’s name) remonstrated earnestly with the keeper against these abuses. He responded by shutting the door in her face and forbidding her ever to enter the place again. She appealed for aid to her friend, Miss Anna Parker, an accomplished young lady and a favorite of Albany society. Miss Parker carried the complaint to a leading magistrate of the city, and implored his interposition. To her astonishment and chagrin, instead of taking some considerate action in the matter, he rebuked her for interfering with county officials and for listening to telltale busybodies. He directly intimated that a young lady of wealth, occupying a high social position, could better employ her time than by meddling with the administration of public relief to paupers. In spite of every discouragement, Miss Knapp continued firm in her determination to protect the poor creatures at the almshouse; and, as she could gain admission there in no other way, she formed the heroic resolution of entering the place as a pauper, which she soon did under commitment obtained on her own application. A sharp controversy followed. Miss Knapp was upheld by Miss Parker, who enlisted other friends in the cause; and a reformation was soon begun at the county-house, which was followed, at the next election, by the choice of officials favorable to reform.

Among the gentlemen who had taken part in this struggle was the Hon. John V. L. Pruyn, a prominent lawyer of Albany, who was convinced by this circumstance of the necessity of a system of State supervision over public charities, and at once set about making a framework of law for this object. This was before any State Board of Charities was established in this country. The time had not come, however, for the acceptance of so novel a proposition. It was not until I866 that an incident occurred which ripened public sentiment and opened the way for favorable legislation. At a late hour of the night in the year named there was taken to the door of one of the great hospitals in New York City a poor man whose critical condition required immediate hospital aid. The hour for admission of patients had passed; and he could not be received without an order from one of the governors of the institution, which could not then be obtained. In consequence, the man died in great suffering and under sorrowful circumstances. Mr. Pruyn, who was acquainted with some of the hospital managers, petitioned the Board of Management for a change of rules; but red-tapeism and official importance were impregnable, and the petition was treated with contempt. Mr. Pruyn then laid his proposition for a State Supervising Board before Governor Fenton, who indorsed it and recommended it in his annual message to the legislature in I867. It was taken up by the Chairman of the Committee on State Charitable Institutions, Dr. Charles S. Hoyt, who introduced a bill for the organization of a State Board of Charities, as recommended by Governor Fenton, which became a law during that session. Mr. Pruyn, whose zeal and philanthropy contributed in so large a measure to the establishment of this supervising agency in New York State, at the urgent request of the Governor consented to act as President of the Board. He occupied the position upwards of ten years, and was its President at the time of his death in I877.

I have dwelt at some length on these incidents, as showing the causes that led to the foundation of a State Board of Charities in New York. I doubt not similar incidents have had something to do with the establishment of Boards in other States.

While there is practical unanimity of opinion regarding the usefulness of State Boards of Charities, there are still some mooted questions as to their organization and the principles that should govern them.*

A State Board of Charities is doubtless best formed when the Governor of the State appoints its members. Their terms of office should not be less than eight years. The advantage of long terms is that, in this way, a continuous policy can be carried out, new members can avail themselves of the knowledge and experience of those who have been long engaged in the work, and the insidious influence of politics is less likely to be felt. There should not be more than nine nor less than five members. If it be practicable to include, the Governor of the State as ex-officio President of the Board, it appears desirable to do so, because of the greater usefulness likely to be exercised by the Board when the chief executive is a member, and because its recommendations will have greater weight with the legislature. Commissioners should receive no compensation for their time or services except for their actual travelling expenses while engaged in the performance of the duties of their office. The compensation of the Secretary should be fully commensurate with the ability required, the arduous service rendered, and the responsibility of the position.

The commissioners should be persons of high character, of keen observation, of good judgment, with large and successful experience in their professions and in business affairs, and such as have the esteem and confidence of the communities in which they reside. Professor Chace has well said, “They should be such men as are willing to spend and be spent in the service, with no other reward than the good they may hope to accomplish,- men who are sought for the service on account of their fitness for it, and not those who seek it for personal ends or are appointed to it as a reward for political service or through favoritism.” If selected from among charity workers, they will be more likely to find their duties congenial and to take up and pursue their work intelligently. One of the commissioners of every Board should be a physician, and one a lawyer.

As to women being represented on State Boards of Charities, my own opinion is in favor of their appointment. There are certain lines of inquiry which they can conduct with more propriety than men, and they are able to exchange confidences with those of their own sex whose troubles might otherwise be unrevealed. In the case of children under public care, it seems peculiarly fitting that motherly instincts should be permitted to reach the many that are orphaned and deserted. The knowledge of women in domestic affairs and their experience in the care of the sick give value to their inspections and weight to their advice. The fears entertained by some that women would not be able to cope with the sometimes revolting tasks that fall to the members of a State Board of Charities have not been realized in New York. On the contrary, the New York Board has to confess its indebtedness to women commissioners for most valuable services. The appointment of women was regarded at the outset as a great innovation in New York State. I well remember the look of dismay depicted on the countenances of some of the graver members of the Board when an earnest, able, and accomplished woman entered the Board room at Albany with a pleasant greeting, and took her seat among us for the first time with as much complacency and self possession as though she had been a commissioner for years. When Governor Tilden was asked at an after-dinner table talk how he came to appoint a woman on a State commission, he replied that he did so “in order to plant a sprig of grace in the barren wastes of the State Board of Charities.” Those who know the estimable lady whom he appointed and the dry and commonplace nature of our Board work will realize the appropriateness of the figure. I imagine that the members generally of those Boards in which women hold membership approve of their appointment.

Whether State Boards should be purely advisory or both advisory and administrative depends upon the conditions to be met. A Board adapted to a small State like Rhode Island would not answer for a large and populous commonwealth like New York or Pennsylvania. It seems best in most cases that these Boards should be organized as purely advisory bodies, and should not seek to assume administrative functions. If a Board is prudent and does good work, there will be a disposition on the part of the legislature to give it administrative duties which it will be difficult to decline. These duties will in all probability increase, the older the Board grows. With enlarged responsibilities there will be an increase of patronage, and consequently greater danger.

Among the powers conferred and the duties which should be imposed upon a properly organized Board may be mentioned the following: –

The power to appoint such officers and agents as the Board may deem necessary; also, discretionary power to appoint local visitors to county institutions. A Board should be authorized to investigate the whole charitable and correctional system of a State. It should be empowered to inquire and examine into the condition, government, and management of all the corporate charitable, correctional, and penal institutions in the State, and the care of their inmates. One or more of the commissioners should be required to visit all the State-supported institutions not less frequently than once a year, and one of the commissioners or the Secretary should be required to visit all the county and municipal institutions, including jails and poorhouses, at least once each year. The Board should make a report on all the institutions under its supervision at the opening of each annual or biennial session of the legislature. It should be made the duty of the Board to ascertain whether the public money appropriated for the aid of these institutions is judiciously expended, whether the objects of the several institutions are accomplished, and whether the laws in relation to them are complied with. All plans for the construction or enlargement of State, county, and municipal charitable, correctional, and penal institutions should, before their adoption, be approved by the Board. Commissioners should not be permitted, either directly or indirectly, to be interested in any contract for building, repairing, or furnishing any of the institutions which it is their duty to visit and inspect; nor should trustees or other officers of the institutions mentioned be eligible to the office of commissioner. The commissioners should have power to administer oaths and affirmations and to issue compulsory processes for the attendance of witnesses upon investigations made necessary in the discharge of their duties as defined by the statutes.

Visitations.– Because a person is appointed by the Governor as a commissioner of charities or is a legally constituted visitor of charitable institutions it does not follow that such person is wiser than the trustees or those in charge of the institutions to be visited. On the contrary, he may have had no experience whatever with the peculiar work coming within his province to criticise, and, instead of being in a position to instruct, may, at least for a time, find he can be instructed by those having had long practical experience in their work. It therefore behooves the visitor to enter upon his duties modestly, and, before making recommendations, to be sure that they are based on sound principles already adopted by organized charity. Great delicacy is required in exercising visitorial powers, and the dignity attached to – institutional officers, however humble, should be respectfully recognized. It is not well to begin an inspection before applying to the officer in immediate charge. Legalized visitors are not expected to act as detectives, but to obtain the information they desire in such a manner as to show that they come to the institution as friends, and not as enemies. This may be done and not interfere with the thoroughness of an inspection or the reaching of bottom truths. Private conferences with inmates are proper, but they should not be had without the knowledge of resident officials. Everything should be done openly and courteously.

In reporting upon institutions, we should be quite as ready to commend the good as to condemn the bad. A report that shows only the faults of an institution is unfair. There is doubtless more good accomplished by directing public attention to what is praiseworthy, thereby awakening a spirit of emulation in other institutions, than in writing sensational descriptions of evils which belong to systems and for which the public is responsible, and not individuals. Whatever abuses may be found, discriminate closely; and make individuals or systems responsible, as the facts may warrant. Criminal charges, if found to rest on reliable testimony, should be promptly reported to the Attorney-General for prosecution. Reforms are often more expeditiously effected by giving local authorities an opportunity to correct them before reporting them to the legislature. If evils are not corrected with reasonable promptness, then it is due the public that the whole truth should be known. There are oftentimes unsatisfactory conditions about an institution which faithful officers and managers are striving to remedy. When such is the case, we should forbear humiliating them before the public, and aim, by kindly conference and careful suggestion, to help them out of their difficulty, and so come into closer relations, through which much good may eventually come.

It should be borne in mind that few things in this world are perfect; and, even in a charitable institution, we must look for the maximum of excellence instead of perfection, or an ideal in our own mind which has never had a practical illustration. I imagine that there are few large household establishments with their indoor and outdoor service which, if subjected from cellar to garret, from laundry to stables, to the close scrutiny of a charity inspector, would not be found deficient in some important respects,- deficiencies or evils of which the good housewife was already cognizant, but which, through inefficient service or failure on the part of others or a combination of causes, it was impossible to prevent. ‘  

Suggestions.—Before closing this paper, it may not be out of place to submit the following points or suggestions for the consideration of State supervising agencies:

First. The number of dependants under public care should be reduced to the minimum by refusing free support to the able-bodied, by enforcing the legal obligations of relatives, and by returning paupers to their places of legal settlement, where, by the aid of their friends, they frequently become self-supporting, and are saved from the enervating influences of poorhouse residence.

Second. The United States should return to the countries whence they came all paupers and criminals, and require from incoming foreigners a certificate from the American consul at the port from which they sailed, to the effect that the person to whom such certificate is granted is, in the judgment of the consul, self-supporting, noncriminal, and will prove a desirable citizen.

Third. Private charities should be encouraged in their benevolent efforts, upon the principle that the dispensation of private charity is better than that of public charity. The recipient is benefited with less loss of self-respect, and society is made better by the sacrifice necessary to carry on benevolent work.

Fourth. State Boards should co-operate with and encourage Charity Organization Societies in their attempts to prevent begging and expose imposture, to help the unfortunate to help themselves, and to stimulate pride of self-support, respect for honest labor, love of thrift, and otherwise diminish pauperism.

Fifth. It is well to aid in the organization in each county of a society for the prevention of cruelty to children, and endeavor to secure laws for the better protection of neglected and abused children who, but for such protection, are sure to swell the ranks of the dependent and criminal classes.

Sixth. An important part of the work of State Boards is the improvement of poorhouses by planning buildings on advanced principles, securing a bountiful supply of water, good sewerage, and other sanitary essentials, also by providing special hospital accommodations with competent nurses for the sick, effecting a separation of the sexes, proper classification of the inmates, removing the children, and improving the administration of these institutions generally. The planning of better constructed jails and improving their administration should also receive careful attention.

Seventh. In providing sites for public charitable institutions, State Boards should recommend that ample acreage, according to the objects of the institution, should be secured at the outset; that the buildings should be plain and inexpensive, and constructed in accordance with recognized sanitary and hygienic laws, with means to effect proper classification of the inmates and convenient and economic administration. The building of palatial edifices for the dependent classes, to gratify local and architectural pride, should be condemned, as the expenditure for such decreases legislative appropriations for needful charitable objects; and the consequence is that, while some are extravagantly provided for, many remain to suffer under very unsatisfactory conditions.

Eighth. All adult inmates of institutions maintained at the public expense should, as an offset to their support and for their moral improvement and for better discipline, be employed at useful and remunerative labor to the extent of their ability as judged by a medical standard.

Ninth. Boards should recommend that the supplies for State institutions be purchased at stated periods, after competition has been invited by public advertisement. Samples of the articles required, with prices, should, so far as practicable, be submitted for inspection, and agreements and purchases made in the best interest of the State and its beneficiaries, without reference to the interests of any particular locality.

Tenth. Records should be kept in every public charitable and correctional institution, showing, as far as practicable, the mental and physical condition, habits, education, antecedent history, previous environment, and cause of dependency or criminality of each person under care. Such records are necessary as a basis for charity organization work, and are highly valuable in studying the causes of pauperism and crime and in determining the relation and extent of heredity to these conditions.

Eleventh. In rescuing dependent children, the aim should be to restore them as early as practicable to that God-ordained institution, the family. This may best be done through organized charitable societies and institutions directed by benevolent men and women, or by State agencies, where such exist. To children coming under public care, domestic and industrial training and kindergarten instruction should be given to the utmost extent practicable.

Twelfth. For better classification and for other reasons, children in juvenile reformatories should be cared for in cottages on the family plan. All should have the advantages of thorough industrial training; and the older ones should have the benefit of technologic training, or instruction in mechanic arts, as is well illustrated in the State Industrial School at Rochester, N.Y. Absolute separation should be maintained between the innocent and the guilty and between the pure and the morally depraved, by means of separate institutions.

Juvenile offenders should never be placed in jails either before or after trial. They should have a separate hearing before the court, and should be there represented by a State Agent, whose duty it should be to protect the interests of the child during the trial and afterwards, in the manner exemplified by the Michigan laws of 1873 and I875.

Thirteenth. The effort should be made to provide proper care and treatment for all the insane of a State, preferably by means of State care. The tendency should be firmly resisted to enlarge, beyond a moderate size, institutions in which the acute insane are treated. As numbers increase, the chronic insane should be colonized in cottage buildings containing not over forty patients each, situated on farms having not less than one acre to each insane person provided for. These colonies should be widely separated from the parent institution and under a subordinate but distinct administration. Whenever, by increase in the number of the acute insane, the curative functions of a hospital are weakened or an individualized system of treatment is rendered impracticable, a new institution should be projected.

It has been demonstrated in New York, Massachusetts, and elsewhere that the chronic insane can be humanely and very economically cared for, and the maximum percentage of cures reached in special inexpensive asylums, on large farms, under independent boards of management. In large mixed asylums the percentage of cures is not so great as the combined average of cures in separate hospitals for the acute and well-conducted asylums for the chronic insane. The dominant idea should be the cure of the insane in the acute period; and our hospitals for this purpose should be small, and in every way constructed, supplied, and administered on the highest therapeutic principles. Expenditures here should be made a secondary consideration, with a view to securing real economy by curing the patient while there is the greatest possibility that he may be cured. We must boldly protest against the seemingly irresistible tendency to build up enormous mixed asylums out of what were originally designed for moderate-sized curative hospitals. Nor must we delude ourselves with the expectation that by simply changing the name of an institution from an asylum to a hospital we thereby alter its real character.

If, in the way indicated, the ever rapidly increasing burden of chronic insanity cannot be prevented from lessening a high standard of curative treatment in our hospitals for the insane, it is incumbent upon us to consider whether it would not be desirable to establish local asylums for the chronic insane, to be built by a single county or a number of counties uniting, the local authorities providing the buildings and the State paying for the support of the inmates on a standard of care approved by State authorities, the institutions to be managed, as are State asylums, by non-partisan, non-salaried boards of trustees, appointed by the Governor or by justices of the Supreme Court.

Looking back to the time when our Boards were first established, or even to a later period, when these Conferences were first formed, and to what has been accomplished since, we may fairly congratulate society on the dawn of a brighter and better era in the administration of public charity. Earnest men and women are to be found in every State working in the spirit of true philanthropy, seeking to heal, relieve, and elevate the unfortunate, to reduce the volume of pauperism and crime, and to see that the bounty of the people is prudently dispensed. In the performance of our work we have found that States have sometimes erred, not alone from neglect, but from ignorance; and only by the severest and most expensive teachings have they been brought to observe the golden mean between foolish extravagance on the one hand and false economy on the other. Let us offer to these new empires rising in the West the benefit of our costly experience, and, hand in hand with them, seek to advance the highest interests of humanity and to attain a social condition in harmony with divine and natural laws.


This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities And Correction at the Nineteenth Annual Session Held In Denver, Col., June 23-29, 1892, p.13-22.

Note: The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.  The web site for this resource is:

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