Sneak Peak ~ Ch. 19 USA Orphaned Foundling Trains

tb chapter 19 Foundling Trains

The first orphan trains operated prior to the Civil War. Over 250,000 children were transported from New York to the Midwest over a 76-year period (1853-1929) in the largest mass migration of children in American history. As many as one in four were Irish.  Some abolitionists feared that the orphan trains were being used as an extension of slavery, and there was reason behind their fear. Not all the orphans were being adopted. Many became slaves to farmers, child abusers and indentured servants with no rights or freedoms. The first Orphan Trains left Grand Central Station in late 1853 for Dowagiac, Michigan. The trains continued to run for 75 years. The last official train ran to Texas in 1929. Many children were sexually abused, mistreated, malnourished, and overworked in the Midwest farms. Trains would stop in midwestern and southern towns, and the children would file off and parade before the assembled townspeople, often on hastily constructed stages. Locals would inspect the children, feel their muscles, look at their teeth, and question them. Contact between the children and their families back east was strongly discouraged. Many of these children ran away from the abusive new homes they were placed in.

These abandoned children were left to their own devices to obtain shelter and food, often stealing, begging, selling matches and/or papers to support themselves. These children were labeled as “Street Arabs”, “the dangerous classes”, and ‘street urchins” to name a few. In the mid 1800’s and early 1900’s of the United States history, these problems escalated and led Charles Loring Brace, a minister in New York, to found The Children’s Aid Society in 1853 in New York City. A report in the New York Times dated May 10, 1860, cited the four distinct classes of needy they served: “First – Friendless and deserving young women. Second – Destitute children between the ages of 3 and 14 years. Third – Motherless and orphan infants. Fourth. – Dependent mothers with children who should not be separated.

In the 1870s, the Catholic Church became concerned that many Catholic children were being sent to Protestant homes and were being inculcated with Protestant values. They began operating their own Placing Out program via the railroad sponsored by the New York Foundling Hospital. Priests in towns along the railroad routes were notified that the Foundling Hospital had children in need of homes. The priest would make an announcement at Sunday Mass and adults could sign up for a child, specifying gender and preferred hair and eye color. It was common to have children separated from their siblings, to not have birth certificates, and no further contact with their parents or siblings. In many cases the only legal document for the children would have been their baptismal certificate. By the age of 18, the children were released from their indenture and were expected to make their own way in life.

Foster Care Was Created to Harvest Children.

In the United States, foster care started as a result of the efforts of Charles Loring Brace. “In the mid-19th Century, some 30,000 homeless or neglected children lived in the New York City streets and slums. “Brace took these children off the streets and placed them with families in most states in the country. Brace believed the children would do best with a Christian farm family. He did this to save them from “a lifetime of suffering” He sent these children to families by train, which gave the name The Orphan Train Movement. “This lasted from 1853 to the early 1890s 1929? and transported more than 120,000 250,000? children to new lives.

“When Brace died in 1890, his sons took over his work of the Children’s Aid Society until they retired. The Children’s Aid Society created “a foster care approach that became the basis for the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997” called Concurrent Planning. This greatly impacted the foster care system.


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