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The Rhode Island State Home and School Project


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From Production to Protection: The evolution of a child welfare system

Dr. Diane Martell
School of Social Work, Rhode Island College

The purpose of this paper is to acknowledge the importance of the Rhode Island State Home and School for Dependent and Neglected Children and other similar institutions in the development of the child welfare system as we know it today. My comments will focus on three issues. First, I will discuss how the creation of publicly run institutions for dependent children represents a pivotal moment in child welfare history; a time period in which there was a crucial "private to public" shift in the provision of services to children. Second, I will comment on social forces that influenced the development of the State Home, especially significant changes in thinking about childhood and children. Finally, I will briefly remark on the ways in which modern social norms regarding children inform current social welfare policies.

The U.S. child welfare system is a complex set of interrelated state and federal policies and institutions that strive to ensure the provision of basic needs, adequate care and safety for all children. The meaning of child welfare today and the guiding principles that inform it are rooted in the process by which the system developed over the past 125 years.

In order to understand the importance of public homes for children in the development of that child welfare system, we must first look backwards to identify how the need for these institutions came to be. Prior to the middle of the 19th century, care for dependent children in the United States was provided by local communities. Although community members were expected to acquire means by which they could support themselves, towns did provide charity to residents who were unable to meet their basic needs. (Rothman, 1971; Trattner, 1999).

Based on provisions of Elizabethan Poor law dating back to the beginning of the 17th century, impoverished children and adults were supported either through outdoor relief (for example, food, clothing and other provisions brought to the home) or indoor relief (placement in the home of a neighbor, in a workhouse, or in an apprenticeship etc). Provision of aid to the poor was provided by an overseer who was appointed by the town (Bruno, 1957; Rothman, 1971).

During the 17th century, many private organizations also provided support to the poor. Some of these were "friendly societies", fraternal or cultural organizations that were established to provide for members in need. Others involved religiously-based charitable efforts, such as the poor funds established by the Quakers. These endeavors to assist the needy also included the building of private orphanages to provide care for abandoned or orphaned children, usually within a religious or cultural framework (Trattner, 1999).

The provision of aid to the poor was based on a variety of motivations; the desire to save souls, humanitarian aspirations, and concerns regarding community cohesion. However, aid to dependent individuals was also viewed as a burden and the community looked to the behavior of poor individuals to determine whether or not they were worthy of receiving aid and what type of aid they might receive (Trattner, 1999).

Policies providing care to abandoned, neglected or orphaned children were closely associated with policies to address poverty and dependence in the community. The primary concern regarding dependent children was that they not grow up to become dependent adults. Therefore, the preferred method of providing for children in need was to place younger children with a local family and older children as indentured servants or in apprenticeships (Trattner, 1999). These placements were believed to serve society by instilling in the child useful skills and steady work habits. Interventions to support children were focused on the needs of society and motivated by the concern that children, left on their own, would become a burden to society as adults. Whether aid to children was provided in the form of apprenticeship or private orphanage, it was believed that dependent children needed both discipline and work experience to ensure that they grow up to become upstanding community members (Trattner, 1999).

This system of local government provision to the poor, supplemented by private initiatives, may have served community needs well in the 18th century but it was unable to meet the challenges posed by the significant social, political and economic events of the 19th century. By the middle of the1800's, industrialization, urbanization and massive immigration had caused a tremendous displacement of people and communities in the U.S., particularly in the Northeast. The result was a significant increase in unemployment and poverty. At this same time, the influx of so many people of different ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds into the U.S. was met with both distrust and discrimination, on both an institutional and individual level. Faced with these new conditions, the traditional, localized methods for caring for impoverished individuals became inadequate and unworkable.

There is not enough time today to explore the ways in which industrialization impacted the family, the workplace and the community, however, it is clear that as our society responded to these changes, beliefs about poverty changed. Poverty, once seen as a humble, but not shameful, god-given status, now came to be viewed as indicative of the deficiencies of individuals. Fear spread that communities were being overrun by immoral and dangerous individuals. In response, interventions to address poverty became more punitive and focused on the isolation and reform of the impoverished individual. Although private aid continued to exist, the primary means of support for many destitute adults and children became publicly administered almshouses and workhouses. The stated intention of these establishments, particularly almshouses, was rehabilitation. However, the institutions quickly deteriorated into human warehouses for any persons unable to financially support themselves including the elderly, physically and mentally ill individuals, criminals and, of course, children (Rothman, 1971).

Fortunately, efforts to remove dependent children from these institutions quickly surfaced as one of the important social movements of the Progressive Era. At the beginning of the 19th century the Refuge Movement worked to pass legislation to have children living in almshouses placed in "houses of refuge" (Sagatun & Edwards, 1998). The members of this movement were motivated by their belief that the deplorable living conditions of the almshouse and exposure to corrupt individuals would lead children toward juvenile delinquency and a criminal adult life. The goal of this movement was to place children in environments in which they would learn the meaning of discipline and work. Oftentimes children in houses of refuge were indentured with local factory owners and farmers for this purpose (Cunningham, 1995; Sagatun & Edwards, 1998).

During the second half of the 19th century, the Refuge Movement gave way to a more broad-based, and complex movement to save children. The Child Saving Movement, which was led by middle and upper-class women, sought reform in several policy areas to better meet the needs of children. Their goals included the regulation of child labor, the rehabilitation of juvenile criminals, the education of children, the protection of physically-abused children and the provision of care for impoverished children (Cunningham, 1995; Sagatun & Edwards, 1998).

It is not coincidental that organized efforts to save children from destitution occurred at the same time as the movement to regulate child labor. Industrialization had brought with it a tremendous rise in child labor, particularly in New England. In Rhode Island, for example, children comprised 55% of the textile labor force in 1820. (Hobbs, McKenzie & Lavelette, 1999). This was in part due to increasing competition, (the employment of children versus adults decreased costs) and the ways in which industrialization had disrupted the economic viability of families. Rising costs and adult unemployment forced many families to rely on the wages of their children to survive (Trattner, 1970).

In the early part of the 19th century, concerns regarding child labor revolved around the ways in which a 75-80 hour work week interfered with children's early education needs; especially their ability to read and write (Trattner, 1970). However, labor unions and social reformers soon began to expose the debilitating conditions experienced by working children and engaged in efforts to limit weekly work hours and establish minimum age limits. By the middle of the century, statutes regulating child labor and mandating education had been passed in all of the northeastern states and reformers began focusing their efforts on the enforcement of legislation and the elimination of child labor (Trattner, 1970).The social and political roots of these efforts to improve the lives of children are numerous, however, these reforms could not have succeeded without the emergence of new beliefs relating to childhood and human behavior. The idea of children, of course, as different from adults, was not a new idea. However, prior to the 18th century, childhood was primarily considered a time in which children became initiated into the adult world (Cunningham, 1995).

In the 1700's the idea began to emerge that childhood should be a time of dependency, not a training ground for adulthood. Society's understanding of human behavior evolved as studies in the social sciences began to take shape (Bruno, 1957). Childhood began to be seen as a unique time of biological and psychological growth. Children need to be cared for and protected, not just to ensure moral and industrious citizenship, but because they had unique developmental needs. In order to mature properly, children needed love, stimulation, and freedom from adult concerns. Economic developments in western society and scientific evidence about human development over the life span served as a catalyst for these new beliefs (Cunningham, 1995). By the middle of the 19th century, the importance of both a healthy childhood, and the maternal role in ensuring a proper childhood, had become accepted social values.

In addition, societal norms relating to the causes behind human behavior changed dramatically. Human behavior began to be seen as related to specific social dynamics versus a matter of fate or human nature. If malfunctioning aspects of individuals or communities were addressed, problems in society could be prevented or treated (Bruno, 1957). This new way of thinking contributed to the rise and force of optimistic social movements that intended to improve society by addressing individual and social ailments.

These new perspectives on childhood and human behavior supported the newly emerging idea that children should be afforded special rights, rights that were not guaranteed to adults. For example, children were seen as having the right to adequate food, clothing, shelter and health care, the right to protection against physical abuse, and the right to education versus work (Cohen, 2000). This was a distinct change in status for children. Previous to this time, the right to adequate food, clothing, health care or education were not guaranteed to any U.S. citizen.

The legal concept of parens patriae, which allowed the state to supercede parental authority, began to be invoked by private and public authorities to acquire protection for children. (Mnookin & Weisberg, 1995). Although the state had had the authority to serve as the protector of the child and make decisions on behalf of the child since Colonial times, in the 19th century the new social values afforded to children led child advocates to take action on their behalf. Children who were poor or abused began to be removed from their home settings without parental consent by public authorities or private agents acting on behalf of government officials (Mnookin & Weisberg, 1995).

These new beliefs had a significant impact upon children, families and society. Child labor, which had previously been praised as developing character, was now viewed, at best, as impeding a child's development, and at worst, as leading to physical debilitation or death. Children, who used to be counted on to provide monetary support to the family, now became financial burdens on parents (Cunningham, 1995). Parental authority over a child who was hungry, unsupervised or physically abused was questioned. State authorities began to be called upon to take further action to ensure the well-being of children not receiving proper care.

These new concepts about childhood and growing pressure from social reform groups led to a sharp increase in government involvement in the lives of children on the eve of the 20th century. The creation of a new type of institution, the state home, was one of the first methods by which the State attempted to meet its new role as child protector.

The Rhode Island State Home and School for Dependent and Neglected Children is an excellent example of this new type of institution. The Home differed in several ways from earlier types of institutions for children. The philosophical approach and design of the home was strongly influenced by modern social values about children. Children were still believed to be in need of supervision and discipline, and work was considered beneficial in the building of both skills and moral character. However, this traditional understanding of children was balanced by a new framework that also valued the importance of care, protection and education in childhood.

Administrators of the Home attempted to incorporate this new conceptualization of the child into the practices of the institution in a number of ways; the on-site schoolhouse, the family-style cottage residences, efforts to place children with families, and the reclaiming of children from family placements that did not provide adequate care or access to education.

The creation of this new type of institution represents the meeting of two new social norms. First, it illustrates a shift in responsibility for children, from localized, private efforts to a centralized, public agenda. Second, it symbolizes the new way in which children were being valued and recognized as having needs and rights that differed from those of adults. What we see then, in the formation of the state sponsored homes is a point of intersect between a new social norm that emphasized the special needs of children and a demand for widespread public intervention to ensure appropriate care for children. The creation of State Homes was the physical embodiment of this intersection. The ideas represented in this intersection laid the groundwork for the guiding principles of the modern child welfare system.

The founding of the state homes also coincided with the creation of training schools for girls and boys who were disobedient or engaged in criminal acts. One of the original purposes of the Rhode Island Home was to separate dependent children from criminal ones. George Peabody Wetmore, Governor of Rhode Island in 1887, emphasized this in his remarks to the General Assembly that - "the poor child should not be contaminated by contact with the criminal child" (Arts and Resolves, 1887, p 12). This separation of institutions for "good" children versus "bad" children mirrors the worthy/unworthy distinction that had always been an important characteristic of public assistance to those in need.

Once the idea of children needing protection by the State became the norm, public responsibility for dependent child well-being developed at an astounding pace. In 1899, the first juvenile court was established in Illinois and by 1920, all but three states had established juvenile courts (Sagatun and Edwards, 1998). Juvenile courts signified the recognition by the State of the need for an official forum, separate from adult criminal proceedings, by which legal issues relating to children could be decided. These new courts were based on the belief that unmet psychological and social needs caused the maltreatment of children and delinquent behavior of children. The purpose of the court was to address the needs of children who were maltreated, or engaged in disobedient or criminal behavior by placing them with families or schools in which they would receive adequate care and/or rehabilitation (Mnookin & Weisberg, 1995; Sagatun & Edward, 1998).

It is in the formation of the juvenile courts that the term "in the best interest of the child" begins to be invoked. Rooted in the new social concept that children had special needs and rights, that which was "in the best interest of the child" (versus in the best interest of the parents or the state) was established as the foundation by which decisions about children should be determined. Whether in decisions regarding the possible removal of the child from the parental home or the disposition of a truancy case, "the best interest of the child" was utilized as a framework for legal judgments regarding future care.

This new environment for decision-making on issues relating to children had many benefits. For example, it forced the state to establish means by which children could receive protection and basic care. However, it also placed the child in a legal forum in which decisions began to be made for them by adults who knew little about them or their circumstances. In addition, children were afforded fewer rights than adults who were undergoing legal proceedings. For example, the juvenile courts had the ability to send a child who had committed a crime to reform school for a longer period of time than an adult who was sentenced to prison for the same crime. These negative aspects of the court have influenced some scholars to assert that the true objective of the juvenile courts was the control of problematic children versus what was in the best interest of children.

Since the turn of the century, "in the best interest of the child" has been the official philosophy that has informed policy and practice in what has become the modern child welfare system. Early in the 20th century, governmental policies to support and care for children began to emerge, beginning with the first White House Conference on Children in 1909 and the establishment of federal and state Children's Bureaus. A number of maternal and child-focused initiatives including the creation of Aid to Dependent Children and programs to protect neglected and abused children, and the creation of the Aid to Dependent Children program, were established in the next 30 years (Cohen, 2000, Sagatun and Edwards, 1998). In subsequent decades, a large body of federal and state legislation guaranteeing government intervention to ensure child protection and well-being was passed. Federal child abuse reporting mandates, the establishment of state agencies to provide protective services to children and the expansion of income support and health services to poor families have all been the result of a state commitment to children which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century.

It is natural that this discussion on turn of the century practices relating to dependent children should lead us to the question of how beliefs regarding children are currently be influencing child policy. Approximately 120 years after the founding of the state homes, it is apparent that we continue to live in a society in which most people still think of childhood and children as special, at least in the abstract. A more difficult question to answer is how accepted beliefs about children are or are not reflected in policies impacting the lives of children.

Despite recent initiatives to shift the care of children back to private and oftentimes religiously based organizations, public support for state involvement with children appears to remain strong. Even though serious problems continue to plague state child protection agencies, it is apparent that State ownership of child well-being has resulted in a number of benefits for both children and families. In the child protection field, for example, many positive family and child centered policies have been incorporated into everyday practice in recent years. Systems have been developed to oversee child placements outside the home, families are involved in the formation of treatment plans, disposition hearings guarantee rights for all involved parties and state agencies are required to provide services to families as well as children. Permanency planning now ensures that most children exit the foster care system in a fairly swift manner. Though far from perfect, the field of protective services continues to improve in its attempt to ensure positive outcomes for children in its care.

In contrast, the juvenile court system has not fared as well in utilizing the "best interest of the child" framework, especially in regards to delinquent children. Many state juvenile courts have turned away from the concept of reform (Mnookin & Weisberg, 1998); viewing children who engage in criminal acts as more similar to adults than children. In the past 10 years, 49 states have passed laws to make it easier for juveniles to be tried as adults (Griffin, 2000). Public support of the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents may be weaker now than at the time of the founding of the courts.

It is also important to acknowledge that the philosophy emphasizing the "best interest of the child" has never been embraced by programs designed to assist impoverished families in this country. Although children have always comprised a significant percentage of the poor, means-tested programs providing income assistance have never claimed to be guided by the that which is in the best interest of children.

However, it is also apparent that public support for children has actually been a key ingredient in saving the U.S. "welfare" system in recent years. Although the 1995 reform of the welfare system led to the creation of time limits on financial support to poor families, many services to children, such as funds for health care for children and child care were left intact while programs for adults without children, such as General Assistance, were abolished. The needs and rights of children is one of the few arguments that supporters of public assistance are able to successfully use to salvage a few programs for the poor in the current conservative climate. This provides additional evidence that the belief, that every child deserves to be saved, continues to have considerable influence and appeal.


Arts and Resolves of the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. (1887). Message of George Peabody

Wetmore, Governor of Rhode Island, to the General Assembly at is January Session, A.D. 1887, 12-14.

Day, P. (1997). A new history of social welfare. (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Bruno, F. (1957). Trends in social welfare - 1974 to 1946: A history based on proceedings of the national conference of social welfare. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cohen, N. A. (Ed.) (2000). Child welfare: A multicultural focus. (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Cunningham, H. (1995). Children and childhood in western society since 1500. Singapore: Longman and Singapore Publishers.

Griffin, P. (2000). "Frequently asked questions". State Juvenile Justice Profiles. Pittsburg, PA: NCJJ. Online.

Hobbs, S., McKenzie, J., & Lavelette, M. (1999). Child labor: A world history companion. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Mnnokin, R. H. & Weisberg, D. K. (1995). Child, family and state: Problems and materials on children and the law. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Pecora, P. J., Wittaker, J. K., Maluccio, A. N. & Barth, R. P. (2000). The child welfare challenge: Policy, practice and research. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Aldine De Gruyter.

Rothman, D. J. (1971). Discovery of the asylum: Social order and disorder in the new republic. Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown and Company

Sagatun, I. J. & Edwards, L. P. (1998). Child abuse and the legal system. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Skopkol, T. (1995). Social policy in the United States: Future possibilities in historical perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Trattner, W. I. (1999). From poor law to welfare state: A history of social welfare in America. (6th ed.). New York: The Free Press.

Trattner, W. I. (1970). Crusade for children. Chicago: Quadangle Books.

Presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for Historical Archaeology, January 15, 2003, Providence, RI, as part of a symposium panel entitled: The Treatment of Children in the Industrial Age: Rhode Island's Great Experiment, 1885-1979

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).