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The Rhode Island State Home and School Project


Presentations and Publications

Where a sacred responsibility should exist: The age of the orphanage in the state of Rhode Island

Sandra Enos, Associate Professor
Department of Sociology, Rhode Island College

This research project explores the development, growth and changes in institutional care for children in the state of Rhode Island. Included are institutions like the one that was established on what is now the East Campus of Rhode Island College as well as others that existed in the state during the period 1830 to 1980.

Research questions

Research on child welfare typically focuses on one institution or type of institution or the development of key ideas in social policy. With the exception of a history of state programs to promote child welfare published in 1941 (Crepeau 1941), there are few scholarly works that aim to explore how the array of child serving institutions, homes, orphanages, infant asylums and others developed, how they evolved, and how they provided for children in their care in this state. The relationships between and among these agencies which children were served and how the institutions' philosophies changed over time are interesting and important to examine. This is an untold story, as invisible to many as is the State Home and School today. (A brief chronology of some key dates in Rhode Island child welfare history is provided in the Appendix.)

The State Home and School is also a focus of this research. At its founding in 1884, the State Home was considered by some a model child care program. However, over the course of its history spanning nearly one hundred years the Home was frequently overcrowded and under-funded. There were frequent calls to close the Home or to radically change its purpose and program.

Why was there so much confusion and conflict about the Home? How did the Home manage these challenges? What was the relationship between the placing out-program and institutional operations? How did program philosophy change? Which children came and what were their outcomes? How did this lead us to the child welfare system we have today?

Findings to date

Admissions to the State Home in its earliest years were typical of other orphanages. Boys outnumbered girls 2 to 1. A small percentage (8%) of the children were true orphans. About one quarter lost either their mother or their father. Parents of the rest of the children were housed at state or local poor farms, had fallen ill or were destitute. In many cases, fathers' whereabouts were unknown leaving mothers without the requisite support for their children. Sibling groups made up half of the institution's population. In our preliminary analysis of Intake Ledgers from first decade of the operation of the State Home, it appears that almost half of the children who came to the Home were returned to their parents when conditions allowed them to do so.

Changes in the population at the State Home and School, both in the size and in the characteristics of the children admitted presented significant challenges for management, programming and, of course, for the children who lived here.

image: chart

The majority of children in care were not in state institutions but instead in an array of private facilities. For example, a census taken in 1910 of the population of children in child caring institutions shows the following:

Child caring institutions in RI: 1900 and 1910
Name Number in residence
Children's Friend Society 65
Providence Shelter for Colored Children 21
Catholic Orphan Asylum 211
Children's Home Newport 62
Bristol Home for Destitute Children 17
St. Mary's Orphanage 61
SPCC Receiving Home 8
State Home and School 183
Day Nursery and Children's Home 20
St. Vincent's Infant Asylum 144
St. Andrew's Industrial School 35
Home for Working Boys 37
Franciscan Sisters' Orphanage 116
St. Vincent's Home (Woonsocket) 49
Newport Colored Nursery 5
Home for Jewish Orphans 32
TOTAL 1066

As the state's placing-out program grew, the number of institutions and the numbers of children residing in them also expanded. However, little is known about their operation, philosophy and ability to adapt to changing needs.

Research sources

A variety of sources are being examined in the course of this research. These include the following:

  • Annual reports from the State Home and School and successor agencies
  • Annual reports from private institutions
  • Records maintained by State Home and School, including Intake Ledgers, Histories, Superintendent Diaries and others
  • Special reports by the General Assembly, consultants, and others
  • Census enumeration data
  • News archives
  • Oral histories and other accounts from children and staff living and working at the State Home and School and Children's Center

Work to be done

There is significant research to be done at the State Archives and in Special Collections Libraries to gather a complete record from annual reports of state and private facilities. Examination of news archives is also underway not only for research purposes but also to create a package of memorabilia for former residents of the Home and the Children's Center. The Project is also eager to gather photographs of the original buildings at the State Home and School and of other orphanages. It is our intention to involve students in this research in specially designed courses and in other courses where appropriate.


Crepeau, H. J. (1941). Rhode Island: A History of Child Welfare Planning. Washington, DC, Catholic University Press.


  1. This is one of a series of Research Briefs planned for the State Home and School Project designed to share results of ongoing research.
  2. Appreciation for their kind assistance to me in this research project is extended to Reference and Special Collection Librarians at East Greenwich, URI, and RIC Libraries, Ken Carlson at the R.I. State Archives, Thomas Greene, North Providence Historian and contributor of historical maps related to the State Home and School, Ann Sherman at the Jewish Historical Society, Robert Brunelle, RI Department of Administration, Richard Hillman, Department of Children, Youth and Families, and my colleagues from the State Home and School project. For further information about this research, please contact Sandra Enos, Associate Professor of Sociology, Rhode Island College, (401) 456- 8727 or via email at

Selected dates in child welfare in Rhode Island: Focus on State Home and School [1]

  • 1834 Children's Friend Society established
  • 1835 Founding of Providence Shelter for Colored Children
  • 1850 Providence Reform School established; 2nd institution of this kind in the U.S.
  • 1850 RI Catholic Orphan Asylum established
  • 1851 Hazard report on condition of Poor and Insane in Rhode Island
  • 1875 Michigan establishes State School for dependent and neglected children
  • 1879 St. Mary's Home established
  • 1882 RI Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children created
  • 1876 Call from Women's Board of Visitors to establish Industrial School for Boys and Girls, moving them from Reform School and State Poor Farm
  • 1880 Elizabeth Buffum Chase and Board of Visitors call for establishment of facility for children based on Michigan model and away from State facilities at Howard
  • 1884 Law establishes State Home and School at Chapin estate, one of six such institutions in the U.S.
  • 1885 State Home and School begins accepting residents April 25th
  • 1888 State Almshouse established at Howard Center
  • 1891 St. Vincent de Paul Infant Asylum founded
  • 1905 Founding of St. Vincent's de Paul Home
  • 1907 School for Feeble-Minded established in Exeter
  • 1916 Report by Social Welfare League urges more funding and greater attention to homes used in placing-out
  • 1918 Population reaches historical high of 412 in February; capacity of 218
  • 1938 State Home 30% over capacity
  • 1938 Department of Social Welfare, Child Welfare Division recommends closing of State Home and School replaced by small receiving and study unit
  • 1938 Hurricane destroys farm buildings, downs trees, damages roofs
  • 1941 Stollerman report critiques haphazard and inappropriate placement of children at State Home, Sockanosett, Oaklawn, and Exeter School
  • 1943 Population at record low
  • 1944 War adding to problems; population near record high
  • 1947 Plan for SH&S modernization and expansion opposed by Governor Pastore
  • 1947 Experts recommend closing State Home & School
  • 1948 State Home and School renamed O'Rourke Children's Center
  • 1953-1961 New cottages and dormitories constructed
  • 1957 To accommodate construction of road to the Rhode Island College of Education, graves of children moved to Grace Church Cemetery
  • 1970 Swimming pool constructed with funds raised by Women's Auxiliary
  • 1960s New "modern" facilities constructed
  • 1975 Residents ask for fencing around Center, more security
  • 1976 Report calls for closing of Center
  • 1977 Legislature calls for Center closing
  • 1977 Board OK's razing Cottage D as fire hazard
  • 1979 Panel recommends closing of Center
  • 1979 Children angry at closing, smash windows
  • 1979 Home closes in May 1979
  • 1980 Department for Children, Youth and Families established
  • 1985,91 and 92 DCYF land and buildings acquired by Rhode Island College
  • 2000 Last offices of DCYF move from RIC East Campus

[1] Information taken from Annual Reports, Providence Journal archives, and other sources.

To learn more about the project contact Patricia Nolin, Special Assistant to the President, call (401) 456-9854, or email

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