Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 1, 1962
NUMBER 1, PAGE 1,8-12a

Society's Care Of Dependent And Neglected Children --- (I) (An Historical Study)

Victor H. Sellers


The historical background of any subject is absolutely essential to a real understanding of any present day situation, the care of dependent children being no exception. It is the writer's hope that this brief historical sketch will contribute something to the reader's appreciation and understanding of present conditions, especially with regard to the Christian's responsibility toward such children today.

The Voice Of History

Society's interest in and concern for the destitute or needy child has manifested itself in many ways and dates back to ancient times. As one writer expressed it: "Almost all ancient codes provided to some extent for the care of children sometimes treating them as chattels, but often recognizing in some degree society's obligation to care for those without suitable guardians." To be sure, the motives underlying such care have not always been of the highest character; and in some instances, society has been very cruel and merciless in its treatment of certain children, as seen in the ancient practice of "infanticide" among the ancient Grecians and Romans, as late as Plutarch (AD 46-120) among the Grecians.

The first and elementary social organism was and is the family, consisting of parents and children. When children are deprived of the care of their parents society is presented with a problem that it must resolve in some manner. The tribes of ancient civilizations, consisting of many families, usually related in some degree, were no doubt the "elementary precursor" of child-placing. They represent society's first attempts to do something about the dependent child. When any child of this early society became dependent he was simply absorbed or included in the family group of relatives.

Perhaps the earliest historical record of "child-placing" is the account of Lot's being cared for by his grandfather Terah, following the death of his father, Haran. (Gen. 11: 28-32) This event took place approximately 2056 B.C.

The next oldest account that this writer has discovered is the provision for adoption in the Code of Hammurabi, ancient King of Babylon, 1728-1676 B.C.

Other ancient nations, such as the Chinese, Japanese, Grecians, Romans, Indians and Arabian so provided some form of care for needy children. In China, for example, long before the days of Christ, there were places of refuge for the aged and sick poor, free schools for poor children, etc.

Of all the ancient peoples, perhaps the Jewish nation is the most singular with respect to the care of the "fatherless." The Old Testament reveals these truths on the subject: (1) Jehovah was the "father" and protector of these children (Deut. 10:18; Ps. 68:5); (2) God promised to pour out his wrath upon all who oppressed such children (Ex. 22:22-24; Deut. 27:19); (3) Mistreatment of the "fatherless" was looked upon with disdain (Job 6:27; Ps. 94:6; Prov. 23:10); (4) It was a virtue to administer to their needs (Job 29:12; Isa. 1:17); (5) The "fatherless" (widows too) provided for from the tithe of the increase laid by every third year (Dent. 14:28-29; 26:12-13); and (6) Grain left in the fields after the harvest was available to the "fatherless and widows." (Dent. 24:19)

The Jewish Talmud, a collection of sixty-three books consisting of Jewish traditions and explanations of the Old Testament, first appearing An oral form, but later committed to writing sometime between 200 and 500 A. D. refers to the orphan in privileged terms and to the man who took him into his house to be reared as his own as a "blessed" individual.

Josephus, the Jewish historian (37-95 AD), said that the "Essen neglected wedlock, but chose out other person's children while pliable and fit for learning; and esteem them to be their kindred, and form them according to their own manners."

No trace of institutions for foundlings can be found in the Talmudic literature of the Jews. The custom probably prevailed that the foundling was taken into the house of a childless couple who brought it up as their own. In the early "Christian Church" this same type of service prevailed for nearly 200 years.

The only New Testament reference to the care of dependent children is James 1:27, where Christians are admonished to "visit the fatherless__ in their affliction." The New Testament does not inform us how this "visitation" was carried out, but in view of the fact that secular historians deny the existence of any kind of institutional care of children during the first century, we must assume that this "care" was either provided in the home of the child's mother (a widow), or in the home of relatives and Christians.

As the result of persecutions that befell the Christians of the first and second centuries, the number of orphans and other dependent children increased, placing a great burden upon the resources available at that time; namely, the homes of relatives and other Christian; As these resources were exhausted local congregations apparently began to assume more and more responsibility for the care of orphans and other dependent children.

Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165), Apologia I, 61:65-67, and Tertullian (A.D. 160-220), Apol. 39, both state in their writings that part of the money contributed by members of the Church was used for children who were without means and parents. Justin Martyr specifically mentions the fact that the "president" of the congregation "has the care of all that are in need"; hence, the "collection" is deposited with him.

It was also during the second century that one finds the first beginning of institutional pare for children. As the Church assumed more responsibility for the dependent children, and as resources for caring for them were exhausted, the "Church began boarding children with worthy widows, paying for the service by collections taken in the various congregations. This was the real genesis of the boarding-out system, revived, not originated, in the 19th century." Apparently these widows began to unite into groups, not only for association, but also for home and living purposes. When a number of widows came together in a specially large dwelling, bringing with them their own children and the orphans for whose care the Church was paying, a community or institution was established. These seem to have been the only child-caring institutions until after the recognition of the "Christian Church" by Constantine early in the 4th century.

"From the close of the 2nd century the existence of such an order (widows) is vouched for by Origen (A. D. 185-254), Tertullian (A. D. 155-222) and others." "Their duty was to serve the Church, and they had oversight over the women of the congregation, especially over the widows and orphans." This office of "elder widow or order of widows" was abolished by the synod of Laodicea, AD. 364. However, it shows that some kind of a new order of widows appears again in the 4th century.

"After about the middle of the 4th century, both the need for charity and the means of supplying it increased. The earlier congregational method was replaced by a diocesan one — every church in a city or district was subordinated to the bishop for this purpose. The Emperor Constantine I, in 321, authorized the church to receive legacies, and after this date considerable property was accumulated for the endowment of charities. As a result of these gifts numerous institutions were opened to cater for various classes of the needy or unfortunate. These included zenodochia or hotels for travelers and institutions for babies, orphans, old people, the blind and other classes. Non-Christians as well as Christians were admitted. St. Basil the Great, in 370, founded a number of institutions in Caesarea for the relief of travelers, children, widows, old people, lepers, cripples and the sick. The first Christian hospital in Rome was founded toward the end of the 4th century. In this period developed the doctrine that saw the value of charity to lie in its effect not so much on the recipient as on the giver: thus St. John Chrysostom says. 'If there were no poor the greater part of our sins would not be removed; they are the healers of your wounds.'"

So the "institutional age" really begins in the 4th century. "Within a hundred years institutions spread all over the empire. It was the time of the establishment of many monastic orders and sisterhoods, with their convents and nunneries. Hospitals, homes for the aged, and orphanages were attached to the monastic centers. Some of these orphanages were the so-called 'endowed charities,' and were the first known endowed institutions of children."

By the time of the Middle Ages monasteries, looked upon as the place "par excellence" for the development of "Christian character," became the "ideal" way of bringing up children bereft of parental care. Hence, this monastic-institutional care became the pattern in the establishment of special institutions for the care of needy children by the Roman Catholic Church, and the characteristics of such institutions were apparently adopted by Protestant groups, eventually finding their way to the United States.

In the days of Feudalism, during the Middle Ages, the obligation toward the dependent child, upon the death of his parents, did not go beyond the manor to which his parents were attached. Destitute parents and children who were unable to get help from the manor where they belonged had to look to the aid of kindly people, monasteries, abbeys, or Churches.

By the 16th century, "Settlement Laws" or "Residence" laws declared that every dependent person must belong to some definite town or place. This was true both in England and in America. As a result of such laws every effort was made to send the dependent person back to his place of "legal residence," or to get the place of legal residence to support the needy person, since he was their legal responsibility. When people lost their "residence" they found it extremely difficult to receive assistance in some places.

The English Poor Law of 1601 was the first to declare the idea of the support of the poor from public taxes. Some of the things provided for in this Poor Law were: (1) Administration of poor relief by individual parishes, doing away with the old Feudal manor system. (2) Established "relative responsibility" — nearest of kin responsible for care of needy relatives. In the case of needy children — parents and grandparents were designated. (3) Provided four ways to care for destitute children: (a) Put them to work; (b) Apprentice them out until they were 21 years of age in some cases and 24 years of age in other cases; (c) Those too young to work were "farmed out," going to the "lowest bidder" or by "outdoor relief" — relief in their own home; (d) Putting them in "poor houses."

The "indenturing" of dependent children under the Poor Law made some person or family responsible for the support and care of such children. In spite of its disadvantages, it was a step forward. Such a practice was carried on in the American colonies as well as in England. The first child to be indentured in America was in 1636.

The first institution in the United States to care for children apart from adults was the Ursuline Covent in New Orleans (1729). The need for such an institution was brought about by an Indian massacre. (II, p. 3)

In 1797 a Society was organized (perhaps the first in America) in New York for the purpose of giving relief to poor widows with small children in their own homes, as compared to the practice of separating the children from the mother and placing them in some institution.

The 19th century, particularly after the Civil War, was characterized in the United States by the large scale building of "children's institutions," both by the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Churches. The first fraternal organization to establish an institution for children was; he Masonic Lodge of California (1850). A Jewish Orphan Asylum was established in New Orleans in 1855. By the middle of the 19th century the idea of separating children, as well as adults, according to the care needed began to manifest itself more. Prior to this time, even as late as 1844, dependent and neglected children were still mixed with adults delinquents, mentally ill, vagrants, etc., in almshouses, jails and prisons.

The first movement for institutional care of delinquent children was begun in 1817 by the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, located in New York city. In about 1879 the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children introduced the idea of "temporary emergency care shelters."

In protest to "indenturing" of children, Charles Loring Bruce and the New York Children's Aid Society, founded by him in 1853, began to place children in "free foster homes." As early as 1854 children were being taken in large numbers to a single locality and there placed in "foster homes." In some cases, groups of from 20 to 40 children were sent to the western states under this program. Because of the weaknesses and abuses of these child-placing methods, institutional care of children was stimulated.

Michigan was the first state to pass legislation regulating interstate placement of children (1895) Other states followed Michigan's example, until all states now have similar laws.

Of the 1,558 institutions caring for children, according to the 1923 report for the United States Census of Children Under Institutional Care, only eight were established before 1800. Therefore, the 19th and 20th centuries might very well be called the "Centuries Of Institutional Care For Children" in America.

However, before the 19th century had come to a close, professional people were already beginning to see the evils of institutional care. The following words were uttered by William Letchworth at the National Conference of Social Work in 1897: "At one time the orphan asylum and similar institutions were thought to be the only efficient means of saving homeless children; but the difficulty of providing in this manner for the large number of children under the artificial conditions of institutional life have led to the utilization of family homes as a substitute for the orphan asylum, the latter now being regarded more as a temporary refuge and training school for suitably preparing the child for admittance into a desirable home. The family home has come to be accepted as the natural provision for all children, the unfortunate as well as the fortunate."

It should be noted here that it was during this period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that members of the church of Christ and congregations of God's people entered the field of Child Welfare, particularly in the area of "institutional" care. With but few exceptions brethren are still thinking in terms of institutional care as the best way — the place "par excellence" — "the only efficient means" of saving homeless children. It seems that too many brethren have not been willing to listen to the "voice of experience" and to the voice of professional people, and to profit by these voices. It seems that they have insisted upon learning the lesson of "child welfare" the hard way, with children's best interest and welfare at stake. Maybe in time brethren will catch up with the professional thinking, and will begin to modify their theory and practice to conform to the best standards of care for children who must look to society for their care.

In the United States, outside of those states where the civil law was introduced by the French and the Spanish, no provision for legal adoption was made until the middle of the 19th century. The first adoption statute was passed by Massachusetts in 1851. There was no provision for legal adoption in Wales and England until 1926, or in Scotland until 1930.

Although the 19th and early part of the 20th century exhibited two ways that Society was attempting to care for its dependent children — institutional care and foster home care — it was not until about the middle of the 20th century that society provided a third method; namely, aid to children in their own homes by means of public funds.

The forerunners of "mothers' aid laws" were the practices of California in 1906 and New Jersey in 1910. By liberally interpreting their laws for the provision of funds for dependent children in institutions or foster homes these states made public funds available to mothers so they could care for their children in their own homes.

Workmen's compensation, instead of the uncertainties of employer's liability under the common law, and "mothers' pensions" (public aid for dependent children in their own homes) for the uncertainties and inadequacies of relief under the poor law or care by relief agencies were the first social-insurance measures to be adopted in America. Both were enacted for the first time in 1911 Illinois being the first state with its "Funds To Parents" Act. In 1935 the federal Social Security Act was passed, strengthening the "mothers' aid" program in the United States.

According to the 1950 United States Census, there were 1640 institutions (private and public) with an estimated 95,260 children under the age of 21 years. This represents an increase of only 82 institutions since the 1923 report for the United States Census of Children Under Institutional Care. The 1960 Census figures were not available at the time of this writing.

The reader will be interested in the number of "orphans" in the United States as of January 1960, as compared to 1920, according to the "Statistical Abstract of the United States, United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, p. 289. In 1920 the total was 6,400, and of this number 3,350 were classified as Paternal, 2,300 as maternal, and 750 as "Full" orphans. The 6,400 represents 16.3% of the "child population" in 1920. In January 1960 the total number of orphans was 2,955 or 4.5% of the "Child Population." Of this number 2,955 were "Paternal," 840 "Maternal" and 60 classified as "Full" orphans.


In this brief historical sketch we have seen the evolution of Society's efforts to care for its dependent and neglected children — from the simple method of rearing the child in a substitute home of a relative or a member of his society to the congregate type of institutional care, and then back again, at least to a limited degree, to the simple method of family-home care. This change of emphasis away from institutional care has caused some institutional people to modify their facilities to that of a "cottage" system — smaller dwelling units instead of the large dormitory type of dwellings. However, for many the cost for such conversions is prohibitive. The new institutions are generally adopting the "cottage" plan. Regardless of what plan institutional people use the care is still "institutional" and has its many disadvantages, when compared to the individual family plan.

All Child Welfare authorities agree that the best place for any child to be reared is in his own home. Society's first and greatest responsibility, therefore, is to guarantee, as much as it is humanly possible, that no child shall be removed from his own home simply because of economic reasons.

However, if and when it becomes necessary to care for a child outside of his own home, then society owes the child the responsibility of providing the best substitute for his own home. In every instance the needs of each child should be carefully appraised, and every effort should be put forth by society to meet those needs. In other words, the welfare of the child and the meeting of his basic needs should be the determining factors governing society's treatment and care of the child.

Christians constitute a part of society, and therefore, share a part of its responsibility toward dependent and neglected children. However, this responsibility of ours does not only exist because we are members of Society, but it exists because we are Christians. In discharging this responsibility let us never allow our love for humanity and our zeal for "doing good" to cause us to do anything that is contrary to the revealed Will of God, or of any of his divine principles set forth in the New Testament. It is important and necessary for God's people, either individually and independently or collectively, to care for the needy, but it is equally important and necessary that we do so in a manner that does not violate one New Testament principle. In patterning our child welfare practices after men of the world, let us remember that both our theory and our practice must harmonize with God's revealed will. I am positive that too many brethren have forsaken this principle in their zeal (without knowledge) to care for the needy.

Society, indeed, has traveled a long way since the days of Lot and King Hammurabi, but it still has a long way yet to go in its discharge of its obligation and responsibility toward its dependent and neglected children.

P. O. Box 447, Rogers, Arkansas

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