The Rise and Fall of 19th Century Indentured Servitude: A Discussion of the Movement of New York Children to the West
During the mid-1800s, over 10,000 vagrant children were reported to be living in New York City. Most of them lived in filthy, overcrowded almshouses with adult paupers and criminals. Reforms in the city's system for taking care of homeless children were needed. Charles Loring Brace, a teacher and minister from a leading family in Connecticut, worked to solve this problem, initially by holding religious meetings for boys and then by heading up the new Children's Aid Society. Founded in 1853, the Society, claiming that many children were not being properly raised at home, sought to move poor children to farms in the West. Brace sent newsletters to the Midwest and West in search of families who would take a child to work on their farms. Two years after its inception, the Society was given statutory authority to move poor children west. At first the Society relied solely on private donations, but it began to receive state and local funding in 1862.
Farmers in the Midwest rushed to respond to the advertisements and request children. Many, however, wished for 'perfect' children, and those requests could not often be complied with. When searches for placement homes were unsuccessful, one of the Society's agents traveled to a village with children, and families chose a child to adopt or indenture on the spot. Before their arrival, advertisements were placed in local newspapers and churches. Sometimes, children were sold to the highest bidder. Families who took children agreed to educate and care for them, but if they were unsatisfied with the children, they could return them to the Society. Some children were sent back several times. If the children, however, were unhappy or mistreated, they had nowhere to go.
Early internal investigations resulted in reports that indentured children were treated well for the most part. However, there were some scattered cases of neglect, lack of education, and beatings. An 1885 study by the National Conference of Charities and Correction found that many children were overworked and underfed. According to the study, some parents were unfit. Many families sought only to profit from the children and refused to bring them into their families. Detractors argued that the Society seldom supervised the care of the children, investigated the indenturing families, or considered the importance of a natural family in the life of children. As unhappy children ran away from their placement households, ultimately to become delinquents and public charges, Western States began to restrict their influx. The Catholic Church claimed that the Society was proselytizing children and misappropriating funds. This opposition led to a decline in support for the Children's Aid Society and its ultimate downfall.
As the number of delinquent, dependent children, many of whom had been placed out by the Society, in the Midwest increased, states began to pass laws regulating and restricting the indenture of children. Many of these laws required a bond protecting state and local governments from future support of the child as a condition of placement. Indenturing families were given more responsibility for the care of children they took in. As a result it became more difficult to indenture children. A 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent and Neglected Children stressed the importance of the natural family and stated that poverty was not a sufficient reason to place children out.
Other events also reduced the frequency of child placement in the west. States began enacting adoption laws to standardize the placement of children. New York, for example, passed an adoption law in 1873. Its emphasis on the rights of children and the duties of parents effectively ended the placing out system. A decrease in the population of young children made it easier to find adults to care for them. In such an environment, it became easier to justify searching inquiry into the best interests of children.
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