Charles Loring Brace Founder, Children’s Aid Society New York City Beth Boersma University of Georgia SOWK 6011 Fall, 2010 Introduction Charles Loring Brace is recognized as one of the founders of child welfare reform in the United States, particularly in the area of foster care and adoption. His work was conducted in the nineteenth century in New York City, in the midst of one of the most prolific eras of change in U. S. history.

This paper will describe and summarize Brace’s background and the influences that led to his work, the impact of his work on the society of his time, the legacy of his work, and its influences on child welfare efforts today.

Social Background Charles Loring Brace was born June 19, 1826 in Litchfield, Connecticut, described as a small but prosperous village, wholly lacking in urban luxury or vice, but providing its residents with something approaching urban levels of learning and culture.

It was the home of the nation’s first law school….

. also the home of one of the first secondary schools for girls in the United States, the Litchfield Female Academy, graduates of which included Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catherine Beecher” (O’Connor, 2001, p7). Charles was the second of four children born to John and Lucy Brace and, in the Puritan tradition of the time, he was primarily educated by his father.

John Brace was a teacher at the Litchfield Female Academy, where he displayed a progressive slant on education by reforming the curriculum typically taught to girls to include more challenging subjects “including science, higher mathematics, logic and Latin–a curriculum that at the very least equaled that of most boys’ academies” (O’Connor, p.

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8). Young Charles often sat in on his father’s classes and was undoubtedly influenced by the senior Brace’s feminist philosophy that female children should be educated on an equal level as males, in order to “improve woman’s ‘rank in society, placing her s the rational companion of man, not the slave of his pleasures or the victim of tyranny’” (O’Connor, p. 8). John Brace and his wife also believed strongly in the Calvinist traditions of duty, diligence, sacrifice, fortitude, and self-control and passed these values on to Charles. The Braces valued nature and Charles developed a strong connection between the beauty and grandeur of the outdoors and his related feelings of joy and immense satisfaction of being alive.

Perhaps the most enduring value that Charles learned from his family was moral philosophy, or “the attempt to determine the nature of one’s obligation to one’s fellow man—and to God—and the attempt to discipline one’s character so as to fulfill that obligation to perfection”. (O’Connor, p. 18). Another early influences in Charles’ life was Horace Bushnell, a Congregational minister in Hartford, CT, where Charles and his family lived after John Brace took a position at the Hartford Female Seminary (founded by Catherine Beecher).

Bushnell is “regarded by many as the most important American religious thinker of the nineteenth century” (O’Connor, p 18). Rev. Bushnell promoted the ideals of spiritual development throughout the lifespan, which was in direct opposition to Calvinistic beliefs of the innate depravity of humans from birth. This idea would deeply impact Charles’ later work. Charles entered Yale in 1942 at age sixteen and he proved to be an excellent student. At Yale, Charles became close friends with his roommate, John Olmsted, as well as John’s brother, Frederick Law Olmsted, the future architect and urban designer.

During his years at Yale, which also included some time at the Yale Divinity School, Charles demonstrated a strong interest in philosophy and he explored a variety of the world’s religions and spent lots of time debating various issues and ideas with his friends and classmates. This led to Charles’ development of a set of beliefs that would guide his life’s work: First, despite the societal attitude that poverty and criminality were synonymous, Brace believed that a truly just system would see that “lawbreakers might have motives or other qualities that redeemed them, and that God cared less about human law than about romoting happiness” (O’Connor, p. 30). Second, Brace believed that the family was the primary method of shaping humans, as well as the tangible “image of God’s relationship to humanity: God was a father who loved His children and only wanted only their happiness” (O’Connor, p. 31). Brace went on to view God’s father figure as trying to mold or improve the character of His children, a value that justified Brace’s efforts to use Christianity and Protestant values as the guiding principles in his work.

After the death of his beloved sister, Emma, in 1850, Charles spent a few years travelling across Europe as a foreign correspondent for American newspapers after college and he also used this time to visit schools and other organizations that served the poor in Germany, Hungary, Ireland and England. One result of this time of exploration, observation and study was that Charles came to understand Protestant Christianity as the most advanced, and therefore most superior, guide to moral behavior.

He viewed the improved social standing of women and advances in the care and treatment of children as the direct result of the influence of Christianity. Brace stated that “of all practical changes which Christianity has encouraged or commenced in the history of the world, this respect and value for children is the most important, as it affects the foundation of all society and government, and influences a far distant future” (Bullard, 2005, p. 31). Social Context Throughout Charles’ life thusfar, cities in America had been experiencing tremendous change.

The Panic of 1837 had significant impact on levels of unemployment and homelessness, as well as a loss of faith in the idea that religion could be a primary means of change (Nelson, K, 1995, p. 57-58). Events such as the Astor Place riot (1849) and rampant outbreaks of disease caused citizens to believe that “the foundations of civilization were crumbling at their feet” (O’Connor, p. 42). Movement toward industrialization and urbanization, as well as the swell of immigration during this time contributed to unprecedented levels of population, crime, violence, and other social concerns such as drunkenness, prostitution and domestic violence.

The transition from a primarily agricultural society to an industrial one, while beneficial in many aspects, was producing social problems that needed ways of being addressed. After completing his studies at Yale Charles, believing that he heard a call to the ministry, moved to New York City in 1848 to study at Union Theological Seminary. His friend, Frederick Law Olmsted, was already in New York and had written to Charles about his visions for the work they might do to impact the current circumstances of people in the city: “Throw your light on the paths in Politics and Social Improvement and encourage me to put my foot down and forwards.

There’s a great work wants doing in this our generation, Charley—let’s off jacket and go about it” (O’Connor, 2001, p. 26). Upon arriving in New York City, Charles was shocked to see the levels of poverty in the city. Slums overflowed with immigrants and workers who had flocked to the factories that proliferated with the boom of industrialization. Working-class families lived on the edge of poverty; when they slipped over that line, their children were forced to supplement their parents’ income with what they could earn on the streets.

Those from the most destitute families—ravaged by disease, alcoholism and violence—often never returned home. (Eviatar, 2001, p. 25). The prevailing response to the increasing numbers of street children was to place them in orphanages, prisons, asylums or indentured servitude. Members of the privileged Victorian upper classes viewed poor children primarily as future criminals and miscreants.

Charles Loring Brace, however, saw these children a little differently: Although he thought there were some things that were truly ‘dangerous’ about this class of children (not only as future rioters and robbers but as voters who might elect presidents out of ignorant rage), Brace was one of the first public activists to recognize their authentic virtues and their tremendous potential for good. He truly liked the children he worked with, but more important, he respected them” (O’Connor, p. 78). Brace admired the self-deprecating humor, energy, independence, resolve, moral code, generosity and resourcefulness of the children of the streets.

When Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species was published in 1859, Brace read it repeatedly and came to view these children, the survivors of “the struggle for existence” in the fiercest environments, as potentially the most evolutionarily advanced individuals in the nation. “The problem, as Brace saw it, was that the very environment that bred these robust and most characteristically American of Americans often led them to employ their natural abilities in the worst possible manner, with respect to both their own well-being and society’s” (O’Connor, p. 80). Contribution to Social Work

In her textbook, A New History of Social Welfare, sixth edition, Phyllis Day describes Charles Loring Brace thusly: Brace believed that pauper families should be prevented from getting any kind of relief that would keep them together. His solution was to relocate children with families in the West, where they might learn the benefits of hard work in an untouched environment. For twenty years, haphazardly and without follow-up, often simply “taking” (kidnapping) children they felt were in need, agents loaded children on trains and shipped them to cities in the West, where they were “picked over” and chosen by families.

Unfortunately, many families just wanted the extra help and badly mistreated the children. Many simply disappeared, either running away, getting lost, or dying (Day, 2009, p. 233). Upon further exploration, however, Brace actually had a much deeper desire to help further and deepen the lives of the street children of New York, and he made developing ways of assisting them the primary focus of his work. Brace worked in several settings in New York City (missions, almshouses, tenements, etc. in the early 1850s and honed his focus: “The way to save the children of the slums, then, and to allow the nation to benefit from their enormous potential, was to find a way to alter their environment so that their best qualities could thrive and become a boon rather than a curse. All of the early projects of the Children’s Aid Society would be attempts to modify the environment of poor children so as to replace the worst influences exerted on them with more “Christian” ones (O’Connor, p. 80).

In January, 1853, Brace met with a group of concerned individuals to discuss these ideas and issues and they founded the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), with a goal of helping the children of the streets by “plac(ing) them in an environment where their most basic physical needs could be met and their own most healthy and virtuous impulses would make them want to improve themselves, to become the very best men and women they could be” (O’Connor, p. 82). Brace was selected as the leader of the organization, with responsibility for developing plans for the agency’s work as well as the marketing and advertising strategies that would support it.

While Brace’s primary intent for the CAS was to follow his belief that Christian men had “a responsibility to God” to care for the less fortunate children, he also developed a method of appealing to wealthy New Yorkers, the potential financial backers, by showing the advantages of the CAS’ work in attempting to ensure that future society would be protected from the potential negative impact of leaving these children to their own devices on the streets.

The CAS borrowed some ideas from existing social service agencies of the time, such as holding “Sunday meetings” and opening Industrial schools, which were designed to provide an opportunity for the street children to develop basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, as well as to develop useful job training and trade skills that were of benefit to society. “Girls learned the ‘needle trades’ (sewing, and dress- and hat-making) and skills they could use as domestics (housecleaning, cooking, serving).

Boys were taught such skills as carpentry and shoe- and box-making” (O’Connor, p. 86). Most of the children served were teenagers and the CAS treated them as competent individuals, capable of deciding on their own whether or not they wanted to participate in CAS services. The CAS did employ strong persuasive and evangelical techniques, in an effort to encourage participation, but did not force anyone to participate against their will.

Unlike asylums, orphanages, houses of refuge and prisons, which attempted to reform poor children by submitting them to inflexible routines of training, religion and work, the CAS primarily attempted to shape children’s character through the choices it offered and the ‘unconscious influence’ exerted by its ostensibly virtuous staff. Brace believed, in fact, that the offering of choice itself was character-building because it encouraged autonomy and independence” (O’Connor, p. 87-88).

The New York newsboys became the face of the children served by the CAS. Popular books by Charles Dickens and Horatio Alger had put the newsboys in the forefront of societal awareness and Charles Loring Brace viewed the newsboys as the personification of the strengths and qualities that he admired most about the children of the streets. The CAS opened the first Newsboys’ Lodging House in 1854, in order to provide reasonably-priced lodging as an option to sleeping on the streets.

Residents of the lodging house were expected to pay six cents for a bed and four cents for a meal, in accordance with Brace’s beliefs in self-sufficiency and independence. The lodging house also provided various opportunities for children to engage in reading the Bible and learning about the Golden Rule and the love of God. However, as time passed, Brace saw the benefits of providing practical information and education to the children, such as financial management and educational skills, haircuts, and basic medical treatment.

In the lodging houses children were, as Brace described it, “shaped to be honest and industrious citizens; here taught economy, good order, cleanliness, and morality; here Religion brings its powerful influences to bear upon them; and they are sent forth to begin courses of honest livelihood” (O’Connor, p. 93). As the railroads expanded West, Brace developed another option for assisting homeless children of the city. Expanding on the seeds planted by Rev.

Bushnell in his youth, Brace came to believe that, as the moral and spiritual development of children had the potential to be impacted by all they came in contact with, facilitating the move of the street children to more “decent and properly Christian” environments would be the best way to preserve and enhance their character. By using his contacts with a railroad executive and patron of the CAS, Brace developed an “Emigration Plan”, in which children who were orphans or from destitute families could sign up for train transport West, towards placement with a new “family”.

Brace strove to maintain the importance of the child’s independence and did not follow the “indenture” plan of earlier times, in which children were bound to their new family for a period of time in order to pay off debts related to their inclusion in that household. Under Brace’s plan, the CAS or the child’s family maintained guardianship and the relationship between the child and the placement family could be dissolved at any time if either party was dissatisfied.

The child was expected to work as a member of the new family, in order to “pay” his/her way. The new family was expected to provide room and board, make arrangements for education of younger children, provide opportunities for the child to develop work skills and experiences, and provide them some money upon reaching age 21, at which time the child was expected to assume full independence and responsibility for himself. According to CAS archives, CAS moved an estimated “105,000 children between 1853 and the early 1930s” (O’Connor, p. 49) to the West. While the “orphan trains”, as they became known, were a massive undertaking, Brace also maintained focus on the local efforts in New York, opening the first Girls’ Lodging House in 1862 and continuing to work with the CAS until his death in 1890, consistently working to enhance the reputation of the CAS, as well as to provide support for children in need. Criticisms Critics of Brace have identified several issues with his work.

Throughout the Orphan Train activity, there were consistent complaints that these efforts were, in fact, a move to proselytize Catholic youths (the majority of the street children) and to send them to Protestant families in the West, where they would lose connection with the faith of their ancestors. After Brace’s death, his sons took over the management of CAS and they actually took steps to focus efforts on Protestant children in order to decrease this criticism.

Catholic children in need were the focus of Catholic-specific aid agencies. Another complaint was the lack of consistent record-keeping on the children served, especially those sent West. CAS did not take steps to verify the circumstances of children who showed up to take a train trip and there were many who were critical of the fact that some of the children who were sent away were, in fact, from intact functional families.

A third issue for critics was that Brace appeared to be somewhat selective in the information that he made public regarding CAS’ work, apparently choosing to idealize the results and minimize the facts related to those whose cases did not end positively. The vast majority of the children who were sent West did not receive any follow-up; neither was there any screening mechanism to determine if placement families were actually upstanding people, or if they might be taking advantage of, or abusing, the children placed with them.

In promotional writings, Brace frequently depicted the orphan train efforts as having very high success rates, but in actuality, “approximately 20 percent of records made under Brace’s stewardship are so incomplete that it is impossible to get any idea of how a child fared in his or her new home, and most of the remaining files are so fragmentary that conclusions based on them can only be educated guesses at best” (O’Connor, p. 49) Clay Gish (1999) identified another criticism that still affects child welfare efforts today: “One of Brace’s most enduring—and most problematic—legacies to modern social services is that he made it acceptable policy to intervene in the lives of the poor on the grounds of protecting their children” (Gish, p. 137). Summary Charles Loring Brace made many contributions to child welfare reform in the nineteenth century. As described by Howard Husock (2008), “the scale of what Brace did is stunning, especially for those who believe that only government can undertake large-scale efforts to help the poor.

Over its first 27 years, the Children’s Aid Society provided temporary assistance and moral instruction to the 170,000 children who passed through its seven Lodging Houses. It also placed 50,000 orphans and other street children in homes in Michigan, Wisconsin and other points west, in order to bring them under the ‘healthy influence of family life’. And it established ’21 day schools’—vocational schools for older kids—‘and 14 night schools, with an aggregate annual attendance of about 100,000 children” (Husock, p. 4).

Husock continued: “In a manner now familiar, he (Brace) identified and described a social problem: child homelessness and its potential to fuel ‘the dangerous classes’. He established a freestanding organization, not linked, for instance, to any one church; assembled a board; successfully solicited thousands of donors; and brought together volunteers and paid staff” (p. 5). Brace arguably impacted the crime rates in New York City as a result of his work as well. A review of crime records in New York from 1861-1871 (O’Connor, p. 75) shows that, while the city’s population grew consistently, arrest rates for vagrancy and petty larceny (the primary crimes children were arrested for) decreased each year. Brace also positively affected the implementation of truancy laws in the city, through his consistent and vociferous support of compulsory education for all children. As time has passed and Brace’s work has been reviewed, many critiques and problems have been identified. However, when viewed in the context of nineteenth-century society, Brace’s work shows a progressive ideal that undoubtedly made a difference.

The efforts had decidedly mixed results and certainly did not end in overwhelmingly positive outcomes for every child involved. However, research shows that Brace’s true intent did indeed appear to be to help those in need, in accordance with his personal religious mandate of having an obligation to do so. As a child who was adopted at birth, this writer can appreciate Brace’s efforts to facilitate the movement of children in need to more positive and family-oriented situations. I certainly feel for many of the children and families that were separated, whether as a direct result of Brace’s efforts or by some ther circumstance, as this was surely a heart-wrenching experience to have. Then again, I recognize that I am viewing these situations through a twenty-first century lens, which colors my perspective a bit. In the nineteenth century, children were expected to work and be contributors to the family’s well-being as opposed to current views of children as “special” beings primarily in need of love and support in order to grow, develop and become productive and upstanding members of society.

Charles Loring Brace lived during the beginnings of the shift in societal views on children and their roles. In review of his work, it appears that he did what he was capable of to make a difference in the lives of those he was called to serve.

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Charles Loring Brace. (2019, Jun 20). Retrieved from

Charles Loring Brace
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