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Boarding System For Neglected Children (1894)

The Boarding System For Neglected Children

A Presentation by Miss C. H. Pemberton, Acting Superintendent of The Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania at the Twenty-First Annual Session of the National Conference of Charities And Correction, May, 1894. 

Editor’s Note:  This entry is one of three presentations by distinguished leaders of the era at the 1894 Annual Meeting of the National Conference on Social Welfare in a section of the meeting on “Child-Saving.”  Together, the three entries describe the institutions, deplorable conditions and efforts to reform and improve the care of vulnerable children. The other two entries are:

 “The Removal of Children from Almshouses,” by Homer Folks

 “The Removal of Children from Almshouses in the State of New York,” by Hon. W. P. Letchworth

It is a striking fact that, whenever managers of institutions come together to compare methods, they always agree in stating that, if you can place a child in a good home, it is better than to keep it in the institution. They also agree in measuring the standard of their institution by its approach towards family life. They seem to me to be all engaged in imitating a good thing; but why not secure the “good thing” itself instead of the imitation? The “good thing,” beyond all question, is a natural, healthy home life for a child. How can it be obtained?

In the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania we have tried all methods, and have adopted what, for want of a better term, we call the “boarding system.” It is a very inadequate term. It leaves out the greater part of what we want to express,- the special care, the training, the learning how to work, the educational advantages, and much else,-and suggests only the one feature of payment. The English call it “boarding out,” which I think is worse still. The children are generally pretty well “out” when they come to us,out of home and care and love and everything that a child needs. Our business is to get them, as quickly as possible, into love and care and proper home life. So I would rather call it “boarding in.” I do not think it is worth while to discuss what may be done with the bright, attractive, well-raised child, of good antecedents, whom misfortune throws temporarily into our hands. That kind of a child may be trusted generally to make its own way. Its birth-marks are recognized everywhere, and it speedily shapes its own career. All agree that this kind of child is born for family life; but what about that other kind of child, the type with which every orphan asylum and reformatory is familiar?

The Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania exists chiefly to take care of that other kind of child. Whenever we hear of a child that nobody wants, that every institution closes its doors against, that is unlovable, incorrigible, full of bad habits, that is sickly, diseased, nervous, with sore eyes and sore head, —a poor, maimed, halting thing that the world shoves out of sight,-we say, ” This is a case for the Children’s Aid Society, for we know how to take care of it.” This is the kind of child that most needs family life, that is most injured by the institution. The longer it remains in the institution, the less fitted is it to enter the family.

The larger percentage of our children belong to this class. They come to us after years of contamination in almshouses, after years of parental neglect and street life. They come to us convicted of crime in the criminal court, accomplished little pickpockets and thieves; and we ask only one condition, that they be still children in years, however old they may be in the knowledge of things evil. If they are little and young, we can deal with them as children, and make them over into the likeness of a better humanity.

I admit that we could not deal with them if we had to keep them under one roof. We do not divide them into classes of twenty or ten or five or three or even two. We deal with them one by one, providing for each a paid superintendent, a paid matron, and a whole institution to itself. I am sure you would not ask your matron to take care of fifty boys for love, or for what work she could get out of them. Neither do we ask our matrons to take care of one child for nothing. The right care of a child is worth paying for, and we pay our matrons and care-takers in proportion to their task. In this way we secure exactly what a neglected child needs, -devoted personal interest and supervision in a genuine home. It costs us from $1.75 to $2.00 or $2.50 per week to take care of each child. I do not recommend it as a cheap system. It is expensive all the way through, except in results; but it is beyond question the best and safest way to take care of the most difficult class of children. It insures their education and industrial training without sacrificing their liberty, their self-reliance, and their opportunity to make home ties.

We have two distinct ends in view in boarding a child. One is to give it an opportunity to win affection and a permanent home for itself: the other is to secure moral training and a wholesome environment for the child of neglect. Very ordinary, unattractive children, when taken to board by childless families, awaken a sentiment which frequently deepens into a strong affection; and the child remains permanently in the family after the payment of board has ceased. No one seeking to adopt a child would selectthat sickly, unattractive little one from the inmates of an orphan asylum. Such a child usually remains an orphan for life. Only the boarding system has the power to surround it with that halo of individual interest which makes every baby boy in a real home a king by divine right.

The other use of the boarding system brings it into a mild rivalry with the reformatory. The children of neglect become the children of crime, not because they always inherit criminal tendencies, but because their associations and training are criminal. They need the exclusive personal care of a father and mother, the stimulus of a new environment, and the prompt removal from present temptation far more than they need the locked step, the daily drill, the enforced task, and the unavoidable but deadly intercourse with criminal companions in a reform school. The boarding system offers a very simple solution to this problem of the child criminal. It says to the reformatory, “You may deal with the criminal: we will take care of the child.” If he is little and young, the chances are that he is two-thirds child and only one-third criminal. There is something to build on in the child: there is nothing to build on in the criminal. We prefer to begin at the child end.

The boarding system, to be properly carried on, must be conducted on business principles, as it is in our society. We employ an expert book-keeper, a trained clerk, and two or more visiting agents, whose whole time is given to the work. We make no use of volunteer workers. Thorough investigation of every case and every applicant- not by one method, but,by all methods- is indispensable to the boarding system. We accept nothing on faith.

An important factor in elevating the self-respect of the children is the way they are clothed. We have been accused of extravagance in this matter of clothing, but it is our experience that it is essential to clothe the child up to the standard that prevails in the neighborhood where the child is placed. We countenance no perceptible social barriers between our children and those of the neighborhood. Ours must be on the same level if they are to benefit by the boarding system. They must go to church with the family, they must be taken along when they “go visiting,” they must eat at the same table, and in every way partake of the family and social life in which they are placed. It is impossible to exact this if they are dressed in such a fashion as to suggest social inferiority or the brand of charity. Fortunately, the style of dress in country neighborhoods is simple, and in many places exceedingly primitive; but, such as it is, our children are required to live up to it. And I think nothing works in a short time such a marvellous change in the self-respect of a boy or girl as to be dressed “like other children.” We bear the expense of clothing all our boarding children.

It is my experience that boys are as fond of dress as girls. When toys, candy, and picture-books fail to cheer the frightened little ragamuffin brought to us from the streets, he never fails to respond to the seductive flattery of a new suit of clothes, which seems to say to him, ” You must be of some account, or they would not dress you like this”; and his face is wreathed with smiles from that moment.

Source: Proceedings of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction at the Twenty-First Annual Session Held May 23-29, 1894 in Nashville, TN. Pp. 137-140 (Accessed: 10/8/2014).




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