12 May 2008

Families & Children: The Children's Aid Society

By Eliza Tucker

For kids without families in Victorian New York City, orphanages and almshouses were the only alternatives to life on the streets. In 1853, Charles Loring Brace changed the future for the city's least fortunate when he founded the Children's Aid Society.

A minister working in Manhattan's notorious Five Points district, Brace was appalled by the slum's widespread abuse and neglect. Taking advantage of the Westward push, Brace and his reformers would place nearly 100,000 children with frontier-bound families. While many of these stories ended well, as Brace hoped, some of the children in the Orphan Trains found themselves in situations similar to or worse than the ones they'd left in the East.

Brace and the Children's Aid Society (CAS) continued their outreach programs within the city, by founding and sponsoring industrial schools for boys, girls, and young women, offering free out-of-city camps and excursions, providing free lunches for children enrolled in schools, and opening the first free dental clinics in New York.

The CAS set up several lodging houses in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, designated for the abandoned, homeless, and orphaned children. These houses offered part-time schooling, but their occupants worked during the day, often as newsies, delivery or messenger boys, in factories or shops. The children in these lodging-houses often did well for themselves later in life. Having created their own family units comprised of other urchins, former CAS kids held reunions, stayed in touch, and became successful business partners.

Today, the Children's Aid Society continues its work as a privately funded organization, helping more than 150,000 children annually through camps, after-school and weekend care, foster care, legal advocacy, health and counseling, and cultural development.