Guest Column: The Superficial Character of Child Caring Work

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-wom 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 1,5oo 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 be come 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 attain ments 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.

J. Prentice Murphy, Executive Secretary, Children’s Bureau, Philadelphia– 1922