Established in 1853, the Children’s Aid Society provided services to homeless children and poor families. Although CAS’s first secretary, Charles Loring Brace, is best known for the “orphan trains”—an initiative that placed children with families in the West—he also built an impressive network of community-based programs in the city. Starting from a small office on Astor Place, Brace systematically experimented for 37 years, expanding programs into an interconnected web. His focus on prevention and voluntary participation differed from the warehousing approaches favored by advocates of asylums and juvenile reformatories.
By the 1880s Brace’s book-length annual reports contained folded inserts that revealed “a condensed map of the city” littered with colored blocks denoting CAS’s “stations of operation.” In 1889, the society operated six lodging houses for homeless boys and girls that sheltered, fed, and clothed, 12,153 children; 33 education programs (including part-time day and night schools) where 151 teachers taught, partially fed, and clothed 11, 331 children and operated school libraries containing 3,282 volumes; health-related programs which treated 7,278 sick mothers and children; and a summer program on Long Island attended by another 4,540 poor children. All told that year 38,853 children had come under the society’s charge. Brace died in 1890 and his son became CAS’s second Secretary. This agency continued to evolve and still exists, nearly 170 years later.
Combatting youth homelessness, illiteracy, and child poverty, Children’s Aid Society forged new methods of intervention. It created a social safety net by providing shelter (short and long-term), food, and clothing. It offered education and skills training programs with flexible hours and creative curricula; recreational activities, banking, and health services. Its impact reducing child and family hardship in New York was enormous and offers lessons for today.
Feature Image Credit: the Library of Congress.