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THE SUPERFICIAL CHARACTER OF CHILD CARING WORK
J. Prentice Murphy, Executive Secretary, Children's Bureau,
Said an old African chief: "My country destroys its children." Say some of those who are of these United States: "Our country destroys its children," either spiritually or physically, and the process is only slightly hindered by the many child caring and protective agencies which dot its fair lands. This is a bold statement. Can it be verified?
In 1907 Theodore Roosevelt, then president of the United States, called together a group of men and women in what has since been referred to as "The White House Conference." They met to consider a variety of problems affecting the well-being of a great army of dependent and neglected children in the care of foster agencies located in each state in the Union. This conference engaged the best minds in child welfare; it was concerned with the intimate discussion of standards of work, and voted unanimously for the indorsement of principles to the effect that children must not be removed from their own homes because of poverty; that family life is "the highest and finest product of civilization"; that the "most important and valuable philanthropic work is not the curative but the preventive"; that when it is necessary to remove children from their own homes they should, so far as possible, be cared for in foster families of high grade; that such homes must be selected with care, adjusted with finesse to each child, and that every type of home should be used-free, adoptive, boarding and wage, and that children so placed should be wisely and thoroughly supervised; that institutions should be used practically for temporary care and that where used, should be of the cottage rather than the congregate plan; that each agency claiming to be reputable should be incorporated and should not only be subject to, but should willingly seek, careful annual state inspection as to its methods of work; that children of the classes under consideration were in need of extraordinary protection on the side of their educational equipment; that careful histories should be kept of all children, and that this gathering and recording of information and the whole treatment process surrounding each child should be what we now call good social case work; that these children were, moreover, entitled to very high-grade physical care at the hands of reputable and skilled physicians; that moreover, there was needed between the various agencies an interplay in regard to activities, methods, and plans best characterized by the term, co-operation. The impression went forth, as a result of this 1909 conference that a new epoch was beginning and that fundamentals had been finally and irrevocably agreed upon.
Six years later at the Baltimore National Conference of Social Work, Mr. Carstens, then chairman of the Division on Children, read his remarkable paper on "A Community Plan in Children's Work." He then described the chaotic conditions holding throughout the country with reference to legislation, methods of work, and ideals. He gave to the Conference a standard of values by which the whole child welfare job could be measured. He stressed the importance of the interrelation between public and private child welfare work, of the need of a broad perspective, and again in telling phrases reiterated and enlarged upon the elemental principles enunciated in 1909, and urged that without the application of such principles and in face of the chaos in children's work then existing there could be no progress.
In 1918 at the Atlantic City National Conference, Mr. Thurston, then chairman of the Division on Children, submitted a report for the committee, which reviewed in masterly fashion the transition in the children's field of social work for the previous twenty-five years; the gradual application of the idea that without knowledge as to the problems involved there could be no progress, and that this knowledge again involved the understanding of the relative values of not only the conventional type of child caring work, but likewise vast areas of work with normal children which had hitherto been very completely ignored in the National Conference proceedings-work such as that of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, Y.W. and Y.M.C.A. group formations, the whole recreational movement, the various religious movements, centering in the early experiences of adolescence, and gradually evolving the phrase which he used— "the Family is the unit of the social work movement"; or that gradual expanse of the need for a method and treatment which we characterize today as social case work, and which is as greatly misunderstood within this very Conference as it is in communities and groups on the outside. He gave a new lift to the progress of ideas by suggesting the need within the Division on Children for a consideration of the actual contributions toward human welfare which children's organizations are supposed to be making, and the extent to which the enormous resources of the child welfare group could be increasingly diverted into channels where their influences would react upon practically all children. The public school as a primary child caring agency was, to all intents and purposes, formally introduced to the Conference in the meetings of the Division on Children at Atlantic City.
In 1919-ten years after the Roosevelt-Washington Conference-Miss Lathrop, with the war as a thing of the past, brought another group of people together in an international conference, also held at Washington. This conference, in addition to considering the needs of those children that were the special objects of the 1909 conference, included the more fundamental subjects of labor and education and health for all children. That conference advanced new standards, added new values, and gave a broader concept to the whole field of child welfare, relating the child caring agencies in proper perspective to all the other child welfare movements in the field. Every basic principle of the 1909 standards was re-emphasized in 1919, while mothers' assistance, adequate wage income, the destructive aspects of illegitimacy, the special needs of the physically handicapped, the bearing of mental hygiene on all the problems of childhood, rural social work, the special functions of the juvenile courts, and the necessity for all children's organizations to add to their fund of scientific information in regard to the best methods of care, were considered in addition.
We have in these United States approximately 7,000 organizations engaged in some form of child caring or child protecting work. Included in this group are institutions, shelters, maternity homes, and child placing and child protective societies. No one knows how great is the total expenditure of these agencies, but, based upon the returns from some of the larger states, it is conservative to say that these very organizations spend each year a sum total running into the hundreds of millions. They have in care at all times an average of approximately 250,000 children who have been removed from their own homes for a great variety of causes, with ill-health and poverty as the predominating causes. They care for a number considerably in excess of the average of 250,000 in care throughout the whole year. The total number is certainly as high as 400,000-it may even go up to 500,000. The length of time which these
children are in care varies from days to years, but the essential thing to keep in mind is that just as much good or evil may be done in the short periods as in long periods of care.
How far, then, do these 7,000 agencies, caring for this vast annual army of children, spending these many millions of dollars, contribute to the total of human happiness and to the advancement of family and civic life in their respective communities? How far do they suffer from the application of out-worn principles? How far are they in ignorance of what really is effective and essentially constructive? How far do they show the first glimmerings of a conception that different standards of values must be applied to the various types of agencies engaged in child caring work? How far do these same agencies in their daily work show any concepts of their belief in fundamental values, in the perfecting and stabilizing of family life, and in the enormous resources that lie within the relationship of parent and child? How far are they aware of the evils and dangers involved in the creation of great groups of people, who, to say the worst, live on the backs of children, and who often, to say the best, just feebly assist the children in their adjustments and introductions to the complexities of life?
A wealthy and public-spirited citizen has just given the largest S.P.C.C. in the country a detention home costing with its endowment four or five million dollars, yet at the risk of seeming impertinence and intrusion I offer the opinion that the sum total of accomplishment of the gift will be slight, for it substitutes brick and mortar equipment for a service which can be provided only by unusual human beings of great intelligence working through the forces of family life.
Why give superlative praise to an institution which spends $1,500 a year on each of 1,500 half-orphan boys whose mothers just happen to be poor, when health work for 200,000 children in the public schools is most imperfect, when this large group includes 2,000 children living in poverty with incipient heart diseases—many of which will become chronic? For these same children as adults are going to orphan their children.
Why give $10,000,000 to found an industrial training school in a small city and neglect the maternal death rate throughout the whole state, so that many children as orphans will never get enough care to make them efficient to take any training at adolescence?
Keep in mind the sequence of standards as outlined in 1909. We are told that home life is the highest and finest product of civilization, yet, day by day in the operations of public and private officials dealing with children this principle is ignored; children are removed because of poverty.
We seem not to realize as fully as we might that even an ignorant parent can bring rare and special abilities to the problems of his own children, that the daily affairs of the family have an educational content of great value, that mothers and fathers are the basic forces through which the protective and cultural things of civilization seek their expression, that the family is the most fundamental place in which to work out civic or social reforms, that there is something in the parenthood relationship upon which we are not sufficiently building.
Society all through the ages has been constantly prone to seek substitutes for things which never can be made to equal the original article. The values of parenthood are things that we need to explore. They may be of little use in many homes at the present time, but they are elemental and fundamental things in the life of society. If the millions and millions now invested in plant and equipment and foster care equipment,
and the millions spent in annual maintenance of foster children could be expended in the channels of training parents to do their jobs, and keeping parents alive for their jobs, the results achieved would be vast in comparison with the really puerile attainments which hold for these agencies today. Careful child welfare work involves a knowledge of the forces back of the child in his person, in his family, in his group. Yet it must be said, without any tendency to be overcritical, that throughout the whole field of child care the group honestly and intelligently concerned in getting and valuing such information is so small as to be almost negligible in numbers.
Let us not forget for an instant that all the child welfare, including child caring, agencies represented in this Conference are only a small fraction of the total number operating in the country. We develop standards here—but so many outside of the Conference are utterly indifferent to what we say or do. In some protected Italian towns the "grandeur that was Rome" flourished for almost two centuries after Rome took to sliding-but these same towns had little effect on the rest of Italy because the old economic foundations had been destroyed. Do we know whether the child caring agencies of this Conference are on a firm foundation?
We need to think of how we can spread an understanding of new values. Which is the most important-health promotion work throughout the community, adequate wages, good housing, good educational methods, and good teachers, or a fine institution, or a fine children's aid society? Why pay more to the executive of the children's society than we pay to the state superintendent of schools? Why not have a scale of values so that the child caring agency won't be counted in the minds of the public as necessarily the best type of children's work? Let us get people out of the attitude that giving money for foster care necessarily means that children will be helped. Let us place higher values upon health and education, upon the good family caring agency; upon the good juvenile court, upon good recreational work, upon the well-run kindergarten, upon the day nursery that has a social vision, upon fresh air work that tides the children of the poor over the hot months so that their family associations and contacts need not necessarily be permanently broken. Let us see the relationship between the expenditures of different types of organizations. The Federal Children's Bureau at no time in its history has spent more than $600,000 in any given year, yet its total cumulative effect on the work of making conditions better for childhood throughout the whole country is undoubtedly greater than the combined services of a vast number of so-called child caring agencies. The National Child Health Council, the National Child Labor Committee, the National Child Hygiene Association, the Child Welfare League of America, the interpreters of children like Healy, Campbell, Bronner, and Angelo Patri, in his editorials, are worth whole regiments of those who do the lower scale but popularly known child welfare work.
Through failure to study the needs and possibilities of the children coming to them, the children's agencies in the private field are saddled with many children who, because of mental and physical handicaps, can never be made to yield a return commensurate with what it costs to keep them. Selection is a process which is essential to the work of any effective agency. The universities and colleges are doing it because they are unable to provide for all the students who knock at their gates. The analogy holds true with reference to children's agencies-no organization, no group of organizations in a city or state, can receive and help all children referred for care, and therefore, if resources are to be used to the best advantage, if the best is to be given to those
who can profit from the best, if quality of service is to count as against quantity, we must know something about those whom we help, and yet all about us are the evidences that what has been so constantly urged is ignored with an indifference that fails of description in any language.
These many sets of standards referred to again and again tell of the advantages that come to children through foster families in contrast with institutions. There is not the slightest doubt in the mind of any thoughtful person that, if there could be assured to each needy child all of those gifts and enrichments that are the heart and life of good families, very few child caring agencies in the land would have a single excuse for existence. But those who urge the importance and value of foster family care so constantly ignore its application in terms of even average standards. Undoubtedly a very great deal of that which is characterized as foster family care for children is poor, indifferent, and bad. In agency after agency the few brief points stressed at Washington as of the utmost importance are ignored, and little is known about the children, little is known about the families, and when these two evils are brought together there is no alchemy that can make the result good.
Child placing agencies, by the quality of work which they have done, have justly earned the questioning, the doubts, the indecision as to whether families versus institutions is really a settled question. I have come to feel that, due to the lack of elemental things, due to a lack which is wholly inexcusable, a vast number of children in foster families are treated to a neglect, to a drying up of their talents and qualities which offer no arguments in the minds of the general public for cessation in institutional development. We adopt out with light and careless touches; we place children in families worse than those from which they originally came; we place them in families-due to our faulty methods of work-which are no true index of the stream of normal, wholesome family life flowing through the communities. We have preached and taught an untruth in our statements that all through the land there are innumerable families of high standards ready to receive innumerable children. Nothing could be more fallacious-nothing could be further from the truth. Only in so far as child caring work is preceded by thoughtful and understanding reception and by constant reiteration that no child is to be taken unless there is absolute necessity for its removal, can we see adequate family foster home resources sufficient to meet their needs.
The social standards, the physical standards, the caliber of social work done, the type of person usually engaged for the job, are below the standards which we set for good, wholesome, and normal family life. We fail constantly to see the inherent strength that lies in the family. If education and health are the foundations of good family life, their lack increases the army of neglected children.
At a comparatively modest cost, the destructive tendencies can be checked through health and education. The child welfare agencies as a whole do not realize this truth. The work is superficial in that thousands of children are taken who could better be cared for in their homes. They are cared for under conditions which do not help them, by people who never understand them, with results that do not raise the standards of living in the communities concerned.
The enormous interests concerned with the problem of child caring work, on the whole, ignore the factors of health, of education, or recreation, of adequate vocational preparation, of mental and social hygiene, and of the principles of true religion. We seek ever to find panaceas through the machinery of organization-now it is institutions,