Abstract: The Children's Aid Society, 1853-1890: Laying Social Work's Foundations (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

The Children's Aid Society, 1853-1890: Laying Social Work's Foundations

Thursday, January 14, 2016: 2:30 PM
Ballroom Level-Renaissance Ballroom West Salon A (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Karen M. Staller, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Purpose

During the mid-19thcentury Manhattan, both bustling port and isolated island, received waves of immigrants who crowded into increasingly congested and unsanitary poor city wards.  Uneducated and homeless children roamed the streets eking out a subsistence living. The Children’s Aid Society (CAS)­­–founded in 1853 by several concerned Protestant men–pioneered serving these children. Charles Loring Brace was CAS’s Secretary from 1853-1890 and masterplanner. One branch of CAS work, known today pejoratively as the “orphan trains”, is often described as a precursor of our foster care system.  However these modern critiques do a disservice to Brace’s far-reaching vision, to CAS’s pioneering work, and its lasting impact.  This research seeks to: 1) describe CAS’s comprehensive intervention plan; 2) link it to the theoretical underpinning of CAS’s mission, and 3) examine CAS’s use of sophisticated data to deliver best practices, promote it mission, bridge disparities, and to deflect criticism.


Using historical case study methodology, data were collected from the archives of the N-Y Historical Society and public sources.  Study evidence included handwritten case files, day visitor logs, internal memoranda, financial documents, correspondence, board minutes, CAS Annual Reports, Brace’s books and reports, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, and social science publications.  Archival data were photographed and hand-written records transcribed. Private and public documents were analyzed and synthesized, and finally contextualized, in order to answer the study questions.


Results are threefold. First, the CAS’s overall prevention, intervention, and reform efforts demonstrate a well-organized, sophisticated, comprehensive and longitudinal plan. Its branches consisted of a network of integrated services that included: outreach by visiting agents, community meetings, lodging house shelters, industrial schools, day and night schools, Sunday sermons, job training, employment referrals, family placements, and a central office for coordinating services.  Second, although Brace’s writing on the “dangerous classes” is sometimes discredited, he utilized a set of contemporary scientific, religious, and philosophical literatures to support a remarkably progressive agenda, including social Darwinism, concerns about the environmental effects of poverty, Rousseauian views on childhood, applied religious practices that called for meeting the basic needs of the poor, and theories about the societal dangers of income inequality and educational disparity. Third, from its earliest days, CAS collected and analyzed increasingly sophisticated data (both numeric and narrative) in order to design services, evaluate effectiveness, and measure social impact.

Conclusions and Implications

 Brace and the CAS laid the groundwork for progressive era child-saving initiatives and ultimately contemporary policy frameworks. By establishing a comprehensive and integrated service strategy they pioneered a variety of social work interventions and, in generating controversy, they both provoked, and participated in rigorous, empirically-grounded, debate that not only influenced the development of social work practice but also influenced policy in the areas of education, juvenile justice, child protection, child labor, and public health.  CAS’s work debunks the myth that early social work practitioners held either individualistic or structure views on the causes of poverty when, in fact, their efforts tackled both.