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Book Review

Child-Welfare Pioneer Looked Westward for Creative Solutions

ORPHAN TRAINS The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, 1853-1929 by Stephen O'Connor Houghton Mifflin $27, 362 pages

February 26, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Who is responsible for the welfare of children? Question the next few people you meet and you may be surprised at what you'll hear. The first, automatic response is: "Their parents, of course!" And if the parents are unable to provide? More than a few people will firmly declare: "Then they have no right to bring children into the world!" Perhaps not, but even if the parents may be blamed, the children, who didn't ask to be born, are still there.

The problem of what to do with unwanted children expanded exponentially with the Industrial Revolution. "Up through the early nineteenth century," Stephen O'Connor tells us in his engaging and thoughtful history "Orphan Trains," "there had been no slums in American cities. There had been poor people, of course, and run-down houses . . . and disreputable taverns . . . but none of the large, decaying neighborhoods of fear and despair that are so ubiquitous in urban America today." As the gap between the rich and poor widened dramatically, more and more children were living on the streets, sleeping in alleyways and scrounging to feed themselves.

"Orphan Trains" tells the story of the Children's Aid Society, one of the most influential organizations to seek to alleviate the problem. Founded in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace, whose dynamism matched his idealism, the society established the nation's first shelter for street children, the Newsboys' Lodging House, where for a fee much smaller than they were charged in squalid boardinghouses, working lads could enjoy clean beds and wholesome food. The Children's Aid Society ran schools offering academic and vocational instruction, a health home where mothers with infants could learn the benefits of hygiene and good nutrition, and most famously, a program that helped youngsters who so desired to leave the city slums for new lives in the West.

Brace believed family life was the best medicine for a disadvantaged child--better, certainly, than the overcrowded and understaffed orphanages, and probably better than a miserable existence with an abusive, uncaring birth parent. Between 1854 and 1929, the so-called orphan trains resettled perhaps as many as 250,000 urban youngsters on farms and in small towns in the West. The program, by today's standards lacking in structure and adequate monitoring, was something between a foster care/adoption program and a job placement service. Although the orphan trains stopped running in 1929, the belief that children fare better in a family environment than in an orphanage is the basis for our current system of foster care.

Then, as now, there were heartbreaking stories of children victimized by their own parents and equally horrifying stories of children suffering similar fates in foster homes. Repeatedly, people argued over which was more important: "child protection" or "family preservation." O'Connor regards this as a specious issue: The real problem lies in finding out what is best in each individual case, a process requiring trained and intelligent social workers who have the time and resources to learn enough about the children and families they are dealing with. In sum, it requires funding.

In seeking financial support for the Children's Aid Society, Brace took a two-pronged approach: on one hand, appealing to the consciences of his prospective donors, on the other, warning them about the dangers of neglecting the needs of poor children. "Society hurried on selfishly for its wealth, and left this vast class in its misery and temptation," he warned in 1857. "Now these children arise, and wrest back with bloody and criminal hands what the world was too careless or too selfish to give. The worldliness of the rich, the indifference of all classes to the poor, will always be avenged. Society must act on the highest principles, or its punishment incessantly comes within itself." The Children's Aid Society barely managed to scrape by until it began to receive state aid in 1862. Then, as now, O'Connor notes, many "pragmatic" people did not see much point in trying to help the children of the poor.

O'Connor's immensely readable book vividly portrays Brace and the world in which he operated. "Orphan Trains" not only offers us a trip to the past but provides historical context crucial to understanding and evaluating present-day attitudes and policies about poverty, families and children.

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