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A PLAN FOR THE CONSOLIDATION AND IMPROVEMENT OF THE PUBLIC
CHILD-CARING WORK OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA.
To the Joint Seiect Committee to Investigate the Charities and Reforma
tory Institutions of the District of Columbia:
Before entering upon the consideration of any plan for the improvement of the methods now employed for the purpose of furnishing sup. port, protection, and parental care for the abandoned, dependent, and abused children found in the District of Columbia, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the present situation, the faults and failures of present methods, what changes are desirable and practicable, and how far public sentiment will support new methods when adopted. In order that such an understanding may be had it seems necessary, therefore, that these things should be here referred to. It is our purpose, therefore, to point out, as briefly as possible, the things which, in our judgment, ought to be corrected, and then to suggest a possible remedy. We disclaim hostility to any person and we oppose only those things which are not working for the public good. We do not claim to have attained perfection in our own undertaking, and have small sympathy for those who would oppose persons because they are imperfect persons, or systems because they are imperfect systems. We believe, however, that there are conditions now existing in the public child-caring work, done at the expense of the District government, which are so anomalous that they need only to be understood to become obnoxious. In the light of world-wide experience it seems extraordi- nary that they should have persisted until now.
The Board of Children's Guardians has been for four years the arm of the local government for the application of the resources provided at public expense to the needs of the dependent children of the District. It has during that time had more than 550 children under its care. It has dealt with every sort of child which will ever be found in need in the District. Its beneficiaries have included those of all ages and conditions, from the abandoned infant rescued from the city dumping ground to the reckless girl of 16 years on the ragged brink of ruin. It has had more employees engaged in the study of cases and the application of remedies than all other associations combined. It has found free family homes for more children in the four years than all other institutions. It has conducted the only systematic and effective visitation of such children after they have been placed out. It has boarded out more children than all other institutions. It represents a record of successful dealing with ivfants which has never been equaled in the District, and it has had as its heneficiaries children who had been discharged from each of the subsidized institutions of the District, with a single exception. We believe, therefore, that our experience and knowledge of these affairs should be of value. S. Doc. 185—29
It may appear that we are making a plea for the enlargement of our own powers or for the placing of additional funds and facilities at our disposal for selfish motives. Such things have been laid upon us heretofore. We have to say, therefore, thus in the beginning, that the prosperity of the Board of Children's Guardians is as nothing compared with the welfare of the dependent children, and the present Board will not, for a moment, oppose or object to a plan which involves its abolition and the advancement of the interests of the children to be cared for.
At present there are two systems of admitting children to public support and protection: One through the courts and the Board of Children's Guardians, the other through officers and managers of insti. tutions without any formality which has effect at law. The first involves legal guardianship, permanent responsibility of the guardian, and a practical guaranty against subsequent distress and dependency. The second involves nothing but temporary shelter and care, the child being liable to recall at the whim of the parent. The two are inimical and mutually exclusive. Since the close of 1894 the second has increased and the first has decreased.'
One or the other should receive final official approval and support. The attempt to operate both will hereafter, as heretofore, lead to confusion, contentiou, and unnecessary expense.
Public funds should only be disbursed in the form of specific pay. ments for specific services rendered, and a plan embodying this principle can not be put into operation without taking charge of the admission and discharge of children.
It is desirable that all applicants for care and support of children at public expense should submit to a uniform test of dependency and necessity. This can only be secured when all are received through one authority.
It is desirable that the entire field be adequately covered, so that there shall be always available prompt and sufficient provision for child dependents of all sorts. This can only be secured through the maintenance of a public agency, some being undesirable subjects, not sought as inmates by any institution, such as cripples, the feeble-minded, the epileptic, and the morally depraved.
It is desirable that records be kept of all child dependents, in order that their conduct and history may be known. Only through such records can we hereafter ascertain what has been the result of our etforts for their preservation. The only real test of general efficiency in childsaving methods is the proportion of the children dealt with which is saved to honorable self support and the reasonable performance of civic duty. Now each chartered institution works out its own ideas as to records, and there are not now in existence any records which show satisfactorily the results of their work in the past.
In all institutions administered by churches and religious orders the outward forms of worship of the particular sect are enforced upon the children, regardless of previous teaching, and religious instruction fre. quently displaces useful instruction in other lines. In and near the District of Columbia is a complete series of church institutions which provide for children from before birth to adult manhood and womanhood. All but one of these receive public subsidies, either from the Congress or from the States in which they are located. They constitute a
Number committed to the Board of Children's Guardians 1894, 203; 1897, 80. The numbers admitted at the institutions through otticers and managers has steadily increased with the increase of appropriations to them direct since 1891.
very efficient agency for increasing the numbers of the faithful of that particular faith, but it has never been decided that the people of the District of Columbia, as taxpayers, should engage in that sort of church extension. The business of the Government is to transform dependent children into good citizens; not into good Protestants or Catholics or Hebrews.
There is now invested in the real estate of the various child-caring institutions of the District of Columbia, exclusive of the Industrial Home School, which the District owns, over $162,000 of public money, and the appropriation bill for 1899 gives the same institutions $37,700 for maintenance. Yet there is no court of justice and no public official who has authority to put in or take out a single child, except that a child might possibly be released through proceedings under a writ of habeas corpus. The parents of these public dependents, however, can demand, and frequently do secure, the release of the children to them when the institution officers know that such parents are both unfit and unable to properly care for their children.
There are certain barriers which operate to prevent the inordinate increase of children in institutions, both public and private, which are totally set aside in the combination of private control and public support. In the public institution the admission of the child is in obedience to the public necessity, ascertained through public means, and carries with it the right of guardianship and control. Under such guardianship the parent, when relieved of every responsibility for and duty toward his child, is, at the same time, deprived of every legal right in that regard. The public institution is not therefore resorted to by that large class of persons who wish to secure for their children support at public expense while retaining the right to reassume control of them whenever it becomes convenient for them to do so. The private institutions, maintained at private expense, sets about itself restrictions as to the classes of children to be received, and must, from lack of resources, otherwise limit its beneficiaries to those in real need.
The surrender commonly signed by parents when placing children in institutions has no binding effect, being revocable at the will of the parent, and when such institutions are supported at public expense they offer every inducement to parents to relinquish their children, or to abandon them for the purpose of securing their admission to the institutions.
It can not be too often nor too strenuously urged that a residence of from four to twelve years in an institution is a most serious matter for a child. It involves a very large part of the time during which character is being formed, and it is, to say the least, a most unnatural and unfavorable condition. The end sought in the care of dependent children is not alone the prevention of physical suffering and seclusion from contaminating influences. That is a small part of the task to be performed. The other part is the building up of stalwart individual character. The influence of the large institution is toward the repression of individuality, the merging of the individual in the class, and when continued too long it tends to weakness and not strength. It is, therefore, desirable that dependent children should be placed in more natural surroundings as rapidly as consistent with safety. Such surroundings can only be found in the homes of persons willing to receive them. The institutions of the District have heretofore done but little in the way of finding homes for very young children, the general practice being to retain, untii they reach the age of 12 years or over, all not returned to parents.