Skip navigation

The Rhode Island State Home and School Project

HISTORY

History of the Home

link: History of the HomeThe State Home for Dependent and Neglected Children was founded in 1884 on what was previously known as “Walnut Grove Farm.” Its original purpose was to provide care to children who were neglected or dependent on the state for support. The State Home was one of the first post-Civil War public orphanages in the United States. Up until that time, large state-operated institutions called almshouses were the primary means of support for dependent children who were not fortunate enough to be placed in small, privately sponsored orphanages. Public dismay regarding the poor conditions of the almshouse and the children's exposure to adults who were charged with criminal acts or physically and/or mentally ill, led to state legislation that established the State Home.

At the time of its inception, the State Home was considered a state of the art facility because it was designed to address more than the basic physical needs of children.

Small cottages directed by a house parent were built to better approximate a family style of living. Children were provided with both academic schooling and the opportunity to acquire practical skills, usually by working on the farm located at the Home or through indenture.

Most of the residents of the State Home were not orphans. Many were placed in the home because their parents were unable to financially support them due to one or many of the following: illness, substance abuse, and the lack of housing or employment opportunities. Some of the children had been abandoned.

The Home attempted to teach the children steady work habits by assigning them responsibilities on the farm and through the system of indenture. As soon as they were old enough, children at the Home were placed with families in the community. In return for work, children were to receive additional public schooling, and their basic needs were to be met by the family. The board overseeing the Home created a Committee on Homes to visit the indentured children and their new families to ensure that the children were receiving adequate care. Records indicate that the board was aware that some families were more interested in the child's ability to work than in providing a caring and loving environment for the child. In 1912, a "placing out" department was established at the Home and paid “visitors” were hired. The program was eliminated in 1919, when the newly formed Rhode Island Penal and Charitable Commission established a placing out program for all dependent children in the state. This placemen program was the precursor to the current foster care system that is today operated by the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The State Home underwent numerous physical changes during its existence. Originally the Home was situated on 80 acres of land. Its physical structures consisted of a stone farmhouse (now known as the Forman Center), two wooden cottages, and a barn. The first year it housed 27 children and was staffed by 8 people. By 1900 the Home had grown considerably. Four residential cottages were built and the farmhouse was expanded to allow for a dining room, a bakery, a dormitory, a classroom, and a boiler house. A two-story schoolhouse with three classrooms and an auditorium for religious services and entertainment was also built. In addition, a well, a pond for cutting ice, a laundry, and a hospital cottage were constructed. By the late 1800s the Home housed 125 children and employed 21 staff members.

The next major renovations occurred in the middle of the 20th century. By then the State Home was renamed the Dr. Patrick I. O'Rourke Center. In 1952, the center experienced a fire in the old school house. Its replacement was an all-purpose Activities Building. Fear of additional fires and poor conditions led to the demolition of all but one of the old wooden cottages. The structures were replaced with new brick, 18 bed, and single room cottages. In 1957 the remains of 13 children who had died at the Home and were buried on the property were relocated to the Grace Church burial grounds in order for the development of the Mount Pleasant Street entrance to Rhode Island College. Six of those children to this day remain unaccounted for.

A number of philanthropic organizations assisted the Home by providing volunteer services and donations. Financial and in-kind donations such as a swimming pool and Christmas toys were presented to the Home. In addition, numerous parties, concerts, and other social events were organized for the children by outside charitable organizations.

In the 1920s, growing support for foster homes ignited public debate over whether there was a need for the Home to remain open. Concerns were expressed that home environments were much better suited to meeting the needs of children than institutions. Supporters of the Home argued that the emotional and behavioral disorders of some children make it difficult to place them with families. Factors complicating placement in foster home included the preferences of foster parents to take in only girls, or children of their own race. In addition, there was in place a state law requiring assignment with a family of the same religious background as the child. This, too, interfered with the placement of children.

Throughout the 20th century, numerous committees were appointed to study the viability question. A 1950 study recommended that the Home serve as a temporary emergency shelter for children pending foster home placement, as well as offer permanent home facilities to children who require group care. From that point until the closure of the facility, the Home was recognized as having two roles, a reception center for the temporary housing of children awaiting foster homes and a permanent home and treatment center for children with serious emotional and behavioral difficulties.

In the 1960's and 70's public opinion regarding the Home changed significantly. Reports of substandard living conditions such as a lack of heat and overcrowded conditions reopened the question of whether or not the Home should remain open. Children running away from the institution, fires in the cottages, and other property damage, as well as allegations of abuse and neglect increasingly became a problem. There were also concerns relating to the high cost of maintaining the facility. The institution closed in 1979.

To learn more about the project contact Patricia Nolin, Sesquicentennial Coordinator, call (401) 456-9854, or email pnolin@ric.edu.

To contribute to the oral history project contact Diane Martell at dmartell@ric.edu (email) or 401-456-8628 (phone).