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Family Social Service During War Time


Family Social Service During War Time


By Anna Kempshall, Director of the Community Service Society’s Department of Family Service, October 26, 1943


Editor’s Note: (1) In 1939, the Community Service Society of New York was formed by the merger of two historical and important social service agencies: The New York Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor (founded in 1843) and the Charity Organization Society (founded in 1882).

Editor’s Note: (2) This paper was prepared by Anna Kempshall, a nationally renowned social worker who received her social work diploma from the New York School of Philanthropy in 1913.  The original document was one of many in a scrapbook believed to have been maintained by her older sister Helen Pinneo. The scrapbook was recently gifted to the Social Welfare History Project by Mrs. Elizabeth C. Adamson, a great niece, representing the Adamson, Ogden and Pinneo families. Some of the documents date back to 1917; however, their condition is fragile and difficult to transcribe. Nevertheless, a number of the documents have been transcribed and will be posted on the SWH Web site because of their importance.  The writings of Anna Kempshall are valuable historical records of the experiences and challenges of family casework through two important periods of American history: the Great Depression and World War II.


Perhaps the most universal problem just now is involved in family separation – separation by land, by sea, by air, by death. Separation is not new, but it means to us more fatherless homes, more loneliness and anxiety, more mothers at work, more children left without guidance or supervision, more strains, more delinquency.

We find more children who need the social agencies — children who are made to suffer in all kinds of ways because of the war -– the child of the hasty and regretted marriage; the illegitimate child; the child who will never know his father or know him only as a crippled veteran; older children, too young to understand, but who feel the tension and anxiety; children who comprehend but are too young to take up arms for their country, and yet feel confused and anxious and have an undue sense of responsibility for adult problems. Living in a world of violence, have we not a special obligation to help children develop a spirit of kindness, tolerance, justice, and moral strength?

There is a wide difference among children in the extent of their exposure to the war and the extent to which the war gets through to their inner life. This is especially true where parents are carrying on as usual – a new baby in the family may be far more real than the war. Others more exposed to the war may take the war more or less in their stride if they can continue to feel safe and their fears are treated as normal and natural and talked over with them. When intense fears persist in children, whether or not focused on the war, we need to look beyond the precipitating cause. Mrs. Smith sought advice from a child guidance clinic when her six year old daughter, Mary, had repeated and terrifying nightmares soon after the American Air Force began bombing Berlin. Hysterically she begged her mother to stop the war, to make her uncles, who were aviators, return home. She became fearful about walking to school alone, expecting boys to gang up and molest her.

At first Mrs. Smith thought that war talk in the home and the father’s working in a war plant was creating Mary’s upsetness. But as she talked further, she said that Mary resented her younger brother but had never been allowed to express any negative feeling toward him. Because of illness he had had an unusual amount of the mother’s affection and attention. Mary had accepted her mother’s teachings that angry feelings were bad. Mary’s feelings and her uncle’s behavior in being bad to Germans became all mixed up. Play interview with a psychiatrist and a change in parental handling brought relief to Mary’s mixed up feelings.

Where the father is absent from the home, the added loss of the mother even for a few hours may make the child’s situation a frightening one for him.

Little 6-year-old Janet whose young deserted mother has taken a defense job and left the child to the kindly but casual care of the landlady, whispers to the worker, “I’ll tell you a secret. When my mother is away and I don’t know where she is, I cry. She says she’s at work, but I don’t know where she is and I get scared.”

Even, or perhaps especially, the rejected child will find in his mother’s absence a confirmation of all his fears of being unloved and deserted.

Younger children we find reacting to the war situation according to the degree of balance and security in their family setting. The child of today, besides being subjected to the loss of parents and other strains in family life that we have mentioned, is exposed to considerable knowledge of the actual dangers of war. He hears on the radio news of disaster, he sees in the newsreel pictures of bombings and battles, he participates in air-raid drills in school and he sees his familiar street strangely darkened by blackouts. He wears around his neck an identification tag, which as one child explained is “so that your mother can find you if you get hurt and are unconscious.” He has often heard of evacuation of children in other countries and wonders whether he too will have to leave his mother.”

Where parents are warm and affectionate and have a degree of personal security and serenity, the child seems to tolerate unbelievably well the threats of danger from without. If his mother lets him express his apprehension and confusion and if she is able to reassure him with answers to his questions and promises that she will stand by if danger comes, if, in short, his little world is safe, he can weather as much of the larger world’s storm as he must. We observe panic and tension in children generally where there is manifest fear on the part of parents, where the children are unloved or threatened with being placed, or where the parent mistakenly evade discussion of the war in an attempt to spare the children anxiety. Even little children are quick to sense unvoiced worry in those around them.”

“Sally, a 6-year-old refugee child, was acutely upset by the school air-raid drills. She resisted coming to school at all and cried violently when her mother left her. Though superior in intelligence, she did poor work and her mother, at the suggestion of the teacher, came to CSS with the problem of her little girl’s failure to adjust. She had always been a good child and she loved her kindergarten. What had happened? Could we help them find out? We began to explore the situation and after a few talks with the parents and with Sally herself we found the clue. The family, though not yet in physical danger, had had to leave Europe when Sally was 3 years old and make a new life for themselves in a friendlier land. The adjustment had not been too difficult; the father found work and they made friends and lived comfortably. Then came the news of Pearl Harbor. “We were visiting friends,” the father told us, “and the word came over the radio. Of course, our first thought was ‘Now it’s happening here.’ We didn’t think we showed our worry, but Sally got sick at her stomach and that night she had a high temperature.” Her reaction to the air-raid drill in school that week and her inability to face the school situation at all were immediately understandable. The concern of the parents over the threat to their new-found safety had to be allayed before the child once more functioned happily and effectively.”

 No one answer to the war or production – you may increase skills for munitions and create more delinquency.

Many more mothers have been coming to family agencies after they have begun working and difficulties have arisen.”

“One mother was concerned that her nine year old son, Jimmy, began truanting from school staying out late at night after she began working six months ago.  She left for work at 7:30 returning home at 5:30. Jimmy supposedly prepared for school after his mother left. When she returned from work, Mrs. D could find no trace of Jimmy’s having been in the apartment after school and frequently found him in strange doorways at 11 or 12 o’clock. Prior to her present employment Mrs. D’s work permitted her to be home when Jimmy returned from school. At that time she was not aware that Jimmy was presenting any particular problems, although she did feel that he was unusually attached to her and preferred being with her to playing with other children.”

For many families in this situation an after school group would be a solution, but as we learned to know Jimmy better we found his problems were deep-seated and that he needed help from the caseworker for a continuing period before he was ready for as much responsibility as had been suddenly thrust upon him. As Mrs. D talked with the caseworker, it became clear to her that less well paid work with hours that coincided with Jimmy’s school hours was necessary. She was not blamed or criticized and she knew that whatever decision she made was her own to make.

It is always shortsighted to exploit children and youth through child labor, through blind alley jobs, through not letting them have the necessary nourishment. Children grow through security, opportunity, and most of all through being wanted and loved. Everyone wants to feel wanted and to make his contribution, and so do children. The fact that children express this differently, or not at all, does not mean, as we so often think, that the need does not exist. It is a challenge to parents and society to find the appropriate outlets.

A well known justice was recently quoted in this column as saying there were few cases of “neglect” in Children’s Court. Neglect is a technical phrase for a degree of parental incapacity. We are not now discussing the worst cases of neglect, but the little children whose mothers are working. This is sometimes a serious kind of neglect. The English experience showed incontrovertibly that little children were more damaged by separation from parents, especially mothers, than by bombings. Yet our whole community is mobilized to provide shelter programs for children under two, – the worst age for a kind of “shellshock” to infancy.

Part of essential manpower is essential mother power. It is true that women are needed in war production, and they must go into it in great numbers, and we cannot let down for an instant. But it is also true that the production and raising of healthy children is a priority in war as in peace. It is hard to get the various programs into effective balance. We launch drives to get women, including mothers, to work in war plants, and then we launch drives to control delinquency — and all the while we know that the one strongest factor in the prevention of delinquency is the stable home. There is no doubt of the values of supervised recreation of wholesome sorts, vocational guidance, and other activities for young people, but we who are closest to families know that without strong family life you have a chronic deficiency which is difficult to overcome. It is better for children to have good parents than any vitamins we know of today.  Insofar as we cannot have this, there are effective substitutes, but we need to conserve our mother power very, very carefully.

“Families are inevitably thrown out of balance by the necessities of war, but that makes it all the more important to strengthen family ties and build up family strengths so far as we can, to compensate for the inevitable dislocations.

Social workers know that a person’s reactions to the war are generally not brand new ones. If we examine them, they are basically his old familiar reactions to his life situations, heightened, perhaps, or revived, or disguised. It should therefore be possible for us in many instances to predict what the point of stress in a particular family or individual may be and what reaction will follow. For example, we can often anticipate what a wife’s reaction to her husband’s entering the service may be if we know how she has felt toward him previously. Whether her reaction will be guilt, grief, resentment, or fear, we can be prepared from the start to help her endure and handle it. Similarly we can evaluate a parent’s capacity to help children through the present crisis. There will be certain strengths on which we can count and certain weak spots were we shall have to support or supplement what the parent is able to give. We can be prepared for the special anxieties of the father or son who enters the service and can see that he receives regular assurance of our interest in the family he has had to leave.

The question of drafting fathers is a formidable controversy. Perhaps many fathers will have to be drafted, but if it becomes necessary, it will be through “selective service”. No such comparable attention is given to working mothers, yet wastage of mother power is one of the worst things that can happen to any nation, in war as in peace.

Against this background of conflicting problems and value, CSS Family Service acts as a “screening process” to see how individual tensions and anxieties can be helped – a sort of informal “selective service”, through counseling parents. Family agencies are picking up all sorts of confused children and troubled children – the pre-delinquents who don’t get into statistics – and they cannot help urging that we use the same intelligence here in preventing waste and shortages as in our machinery. Some women should work to win the war and some mothers should work outside the home, but we cannot win the war for our children unless at the same time we win it with our children.

Anna Kempshall, Director Family Service






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