This week we examine the history of youth social control and juvenile justice in the United States. This history is significant because it provides important lessons about our efforts to deal with problem children and it continues to inform the operation of juvenile justice.
Families and Children in Developing European Societies: Early Views of Childhood
From a historical perspective, the modern notions of childhood, adolescence, juvenile delinquency, and juvenile justice are recent developments. Throughout most of recorded history, childhood did not enjoy the special status we now accord it. The modern view that childhood and adolescence are special times during which the young need nurturing and guidance for their healthy development did not exist until the later part of the Middle Ages, and a more modern scientific understanding of children is still more recent and continues to develop.
Before, during, and well after the Middle Ages, the young were seen either as property
or as miniature adults who were usually expected to assume the same responsibilities as other adults by the time they were five or six years of age.1 Because people did not recognize childhood as a distinct period in human development throughout much of our history, they did not see a need to create a separate legal process to deal with youths who violated community norms or laws.
During the Middle Ages, a period that spanned the fifth to 15th centuries, life was difficult for most people. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire, which had dominated Western civilization for centuries, created many uncertainties for people in Western Europe. Although our knowledge of children’s lives during this time is limited, there are some indications that the young often fared poorly. For example, there is evidence that infanticide (i.e., the practice of killing children), which had been common during antiquity, continued to be practiced during the Middle Ages and after.2 Historical evidence from this period indicates that mothers sometimes deliberately suffocated
their offspring or abandoned them in the streets or latrines. According to one priest in 1527, “The latrines resounded with the cries of children who have been plunged into them.”3 Infants who were born deformed or were felt to be too burdensome were particularly vulnerable. In other instances, destitute parents abandoned their unwanted children or took them to monasteries to be raised by monks.4 These were solutions chosen by people who could not or chose not to care for their young.
The average life expectancy in the Middle-Ages was considerably shorter than today, and the young were particularly at risk from various threats, including plagues and famine. Moreover, common child-rearing practices led to the premature death of many children. Swaddling—wrapping a child tightly in a long bandage—was common. This prevented the child from wandering away, crawling into a sewer, or knocking over candles, which was a major concern because homes and buildings were usually constructed of wood and contained a variety of highly flammable materials.5 Swaddling also made the youngest easier to handle and protected them from air, sunlight, and soap, which were believed to present a threat to healthy growth.6 Other common practices included feeding children from a horn and wrapping food in rags for them to suck. Such practices may seem unthinkable by today’s standards, but they were accepted methods of caring for the young during this time.7
Although many people experienced extreme hardship during the Middle Ages, changes in Europe began to be evident by the 1300 and 1400s. At this time, there was a revival in trade and town life,8 and the concepts of childhood and adolescence were beginning to emerge, at least among some wealthier members of medieval society. Although historians are not in agreement as to the exact period during which childhood and adolescence began to be recognized as distinct stages of life, some evidence shows that many people began to see the young differently by the 1400s. For example, accounts of village life in southern France during the 1300s indicate that parents displayed love for their children, and many grieved when their children died.9 In addition, medical and scientific texts, literary works, and folk terminology used during the later Middle Ages in England indicate that many adults were concerned with helping children and youths make the transition to adulthood.10 Less frequently were the young seen as miniature adults or as simply the property of their parents. Childhood was beginning to be accepted as a unique period in an
individual’s development, a period during which the individual should be molded and guided to become a moral and productive member of the community.
Changes in the conception of childhood coincided with a variety of other changes in social, political, and economic life in Europe during the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s. Feudalism, a form of social organization characterized by relationships between nobles (i.e., knights and greater lords), the exploitation of the peasantry by the nobility, and subsistence farming, which had dominated political and economic life in Europe for centuries, began to decline. In its place was a developing social, political, and economic system based on exploration and trade, and later, industrial
capitalism. The factors that produced this transformation are complex, but the world that evolved during this period, at least in Europe, was very different than the world of feudal Europe. Despite high mortality rates, the number of people in Europe grew during the 1500s and 1600s, which placed considerable pressure on both towns and rural areas. Simultaneously, political and economic power began to shift away from the church to a few monarchs who were molding strong
centralized states and to a growing merchant and capitalist class.11
The two richest countries in the world in 1400 were probably China and India. After 1400, however, European states began to increase their wealth and power largely as a result of China’s withdrawal from world trade and an increase in exploration and trade by European states beginning with Portugal and Spain and later the Netherlands, England, France, and other European countries.12 The acquisition of precious metals such as gold and silver, minerals and other natural
resources, food stuffs, slaves, and variety of products that were in demand in Europe and elsewhere
added significantly to the wealth of European rulers and others involved in trade. Trade and the wealth and power it produced also led to the development of colonies that could serve as bases for further exploration and wealth creation. Moreover, colonies served a variety of other purposes as well. They could serve as bases that could defend against encroachments from rival states and from which challenges to rival states could be launched. They could also serve as places where unwanted or troublesome populations could be relocated—populations such as the poor and unemployed
and those who broke and the law, including large numbers of children.
The large number of poor in England in the 1500s was not simply a product of bad luck. Traditionally, peasants in England lived in rural areas, had access to land, and lived relatively well as subsistence farmers. However, as English society transitioned to a trade and capitalist economy, these rural farmers were forced off the land through a process of enclosure in which the farming land used by peasants was taken over by nobles to grow cash crops and raise livestock such as
sheep. This forced large numbers of people off the land and deprived them of their traditional means of livelihood. In addition, many often brutal laws were passed that prevented peasants from seeking alternative means of making a living.13 People older than 14 who were caught begging were subject to severe flogging and branding unless someone agreed to take them in as servants for two years; repeat offenders over 18 were subject to death unless someone agreed to take them into service. A third offense resulted in execution.14 Also, the Statute of Artificers, which was made
part of English law in 1562, restricted access to certain trades and compelled many rural youths to remain in the countryside. Despite the efforts of city dwellers and the wealthy to restrict movement into the cities, however, there was no real alternative for many of the rural poor. As a result, cities continued to grow, and urban institutions, such as the guilds and the courts, came under increasing pressure to maintain order.15
Children in the New World: The Colonial Experience
Population pressures, high mortality rates, the desire for land, political unrest, religious persecution, a lack of work opportunities, and the desire for greater wealth and influence led many in Europe to leave for the New World. Moreover, many of those who left for the colonies were children. Indeed, for some people, the colonization of the New World was viewed as an opportunity for children to be involved in productive work. Merchants saw children as potential providers of the labor that would be needed to produce the many goods necessary for survival in the colonies. Some people felt that work was good for children because it kept them occupied and insulated
them from the temptations of the street. For others, such as the Puritans, the New World represented an environment where they could establish a community governed by their strict religious principles and where the souls of their children might be saved.16
Initially, the mid-Atlantic colonies were settled primarily by individuals—farmers, artisans, and indentured servants—instead of families. However, the need for child labor in the colonies, along with worsening conditions in Europe, soon led to the development of a variety of mechanisms by which youths could make their way to the New World. In Europe, “spirits” (commission agents of ship owners and merchants) were responsible for signing up young men, young women, and even children for the voyage to America. Sometimes the spirits bribed, tricked, or coerced people into making the voyage. In other cases, they found desperate people who dreamed of a better life. In exchange for their passage to the colonies, those who signed with the spirits agreed to a period of indenture (contract), usually four years, as a way to pay for their passage.17 To ensure they did not
renege on their contract, people were often imprisoned until they could be transported to the colonies. Furthermore, laws were passed in the colonies that allowed the recording and enforcement of these contracts.18 Indeed, the majority of people who colonized the Chesapeake region during the 1600s most likely came over as indentured servants.19
In other instances, poor, destitute, and wayward children were transported from European countries to reduce the costs of providing relief to the poor or incarcerating them and trying to correct their behavior. In addition, the colonies needed workers, and children were seen as a cheap source of labor.20 Not all children, however, were transported to the colonies or came as indentured servants. Some came to the New World as part of a family. This was particularly true in New England, where Puritan families settled.21
The great demand for labor in the colonies led not only to an influx of European children but also to the forced transportation of large numbers of African children. In 1619, the same year that the colony of Virginia obtained an agreement for the regular shipment of orphans and destitute children from England, the first African slaves arrived in that colony. Most of these slaves were children. Slave traders thought that children would bring higher prices, and more of them could be transported in the limited cargo space of ships. Furthermore, the slave traders encouraged
childbearing in order to increase their capital. As Barry Krisberg and James Austin (1993) note,
“African babies were a commodity to be exploited just as one might exploit the land or the natural resources of a plantation, and young slave women were often used strictly for breeding.”22
The Social Control of Children in the Colonies
Those who settled in the New World brought a variety of ideas with them about childhood as well as European mechanisms for responding to those who violated social and legal rules. Like the Old World, the discipline of children in the New World was stern. Parents believed that corporal punishment was the appropriate method of teaching children an appreciation for correct behavior, sound judgment, and respect for their elders. The maxim of parents in colonial America was “spare the rod and spoil the child.”24
In addition to stern child-rearing practices, several other features of colonial life encouraged conformity among young and old. Even though the colonists came from varied social class backgrounds, they generally shared a common set of beliefs and values.25 Also, most people resided in small villages and towns, where there was regular interaction between people intimately familiar with one another. Because the necessities for survival were produced locally, children
spent much of their time in economic production and under the watchful eyes of adult members of
the community.26 In short, the organization of community life was a major factor in the establishment of conformity among community members.
Several social institutions played key roles in the social control of children during the colonial period: the family or household (not all households were families), the church, and the binding out and apprenticeship systems.27 During the colonial period, the family or household was the basic unit of economic production28 and the primary mechanism through which social control was exerted.29 Survival of the family or household and the community depended on the ability of all able-bodied persons, including the young, to contribute to the production of needed commodities. Consequently, a primary responsibility of the family or household was to oversee the moral
training and discipline of the young and perpetuate the values that supported existing social institutions and economic production. For example, in Massachusetts, where the colonists were more likely to be family groups, parents who failed to instill respect for community values in their young were subject to punishment by the authorities.30 According to the Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts (1648 edition):
The selectmen of every town are required to keep a vigilant eye on the inhabitants to the
end that the fathers shall teach their children knowledge of the English tongue and of the
capital laws, and knowledge of the catechism, and shall instruct them in some honest lawful
calling, labor, or employment. If parents do not do this, the children shall be taken away
and placed (boys until twenty-one, girls until eighteen) with masters who will teach and
The family, along with the binding out and apprenticeship systems, played a critical role in the
training and control of children in colonial America. These systems were responsible for the immigration of many youths to the colonies and served as a primary means by which colonial youths learned a skill, earned and saved money, and prepared themselves for adulthood. Moreover, as they had in Europe, these systems were also mechanisms of social control. In some instances, children who were difficult to handle or needed supervision were bound over to masters for care. Masters were responsible for the discipline of those in the household, including servants and
apprentices. Under the binding out system, masters were not required to teach servants a trade, and boys were often given farming tasks and girls were assigned domestic duties. In contrast, apprenticeships were typically reserved for wealthy youths, and masters were obligated to teach their apprentices a trade.32
Religion, particularly in New England, was another powerful force shaping social life in the colonies. Contemporary concerns about the separation of church and state were nonexistent. Regular church attendance was expected,33 and religious beliefs dominated ideas about appropriate behavior. Little differentiation was made between sin and crime.34 What was believed to be immoral was also unlawful and subject to punishment by the authorities. In colonial towns, children had few incentives or opportunities to act in ways that deviated from family and community expectations.35 Gossip, ridicule, stern discipline by parents, and work—as well as regular supervision by parents, masters, and others in the community—ensured that most children did not stray far from community norms. When children committed minor rule violations, their parents or masters
were expected to punish them. In other instances, youths who violated community rules might be sent to the town minister for a stern lecture and a warning to avoid further infractions. However, rule violations that, by today’s standards, would be considered minor were seen as serious by people in colonial times. For example, in some colonies a child who rebelled against his or her parents could be put to death.36 Indeed, colonial legal codes contained a long list of
capital offenses, including murder, horse stealing, arson, robbery, burglary, and sodomy. According to the Massachusetts Bay Colony Laws of 1660, for sodomy, a capital crime, children younger than age 14 years were to be “severely punished” but not executed; for cursing and smiting parents, a capital crime, only those “above sixteen years old, and of sufficient understanding” could be put to death. Those older than 16 could be executed for arson, being a stubborn or rebellious son, and “denying the Scriptures to be the infallible word of God,” all of which were capital crimes.37
Banishment was another method used to permanently eliminate more serious offenders from the community.38 On the frontier, however, banishment could be tantamount to a death sentence. In addition, punishments such as fines, whipping, branding, and placement in stocks or a pillory served as reminders to both young and old that violations of community norms were serious matters.39 Incarceration was also used during this period. Some offenders were placed in the small jails that existed in many towns, but incarceration was used primarily to hold debtors and other offenders awaiting trial. The use of incarceration as a punishment for offenders did not become popular until later.40
Despite the relative homogeneity of the population of the colonies and the variety of social control mechanisms in place, social unrest still occurred, including servant revolts, slave revolts, strikes, demands for political representation, and discontent among the poor. 41 As the colonies grew, antagonisms between the poor and wealthy intensified. Although some servants became landowners after their period of servitude was over, most continued to be poor, often becoming tenants on large plantations and providing owners with a cheap source of labor. Moreover, the towns were typically run by wealthy elites who maintained their power through intermarriage and other forms of alliance between families.
In colonial America, the majority of people were poor, and many of the poor resented their treatment by the wealthy. Even during the Revolutionary War, those who supported independence were concerned about the possibility of mutiny and the lack of support for their cause. This was particularly true in the South, where many poor people felt that a victory by the colonies would simply mean changing one master for another. Indeed, the problems of poverty and social unrest prompted the growing cities to establish poorhouses to provide for and control the elderly, widows, the physically challenged, orphans, the unemployed, war veterans, and new immigrants. A letter to Peter Zinger’s New York Journal in 1737 described poor street children in New York during this period: “an Object in Human Shape, half starv’d with Cold, with Cloathes out at the Elbows, Knees
through the Breeches, Hair standing on end. . . . From the age about four to Fourteen they spend their Days in the Streets . . . then they are put out as Apprentices, perhaps four, five, or six years.”42
Families and Children in the 1800s
By the early 1800s, American communities, particularly in the growing towns and cities, were changing as a result of continuing immigration and economic and social developments. The population was becoming more diverse as English settlers were joined by Scots-Irish, German, Irish, and French immigrants.43 Family-based production, which had characterized colonial social life, was giving way to a factory-based system of production in the growing towns. Moreover, the factory-based system was beginning to supplant the binding out system, which had been the primary
means by which children entered the labor force during the colonial era.44 As a result, the factory and the factory boss gradually took the place of the master as agents of socialization and control for many youths.
As more parents, particularly fathers, and children began to leave their homes for work in factories, fundamental changes occurred in the relationships among family members and in the role of the family in controlling the behavior of children. Before the Industrial Revolution, parents were involved in making occupational choices for their children, typically when the children were 10 to 12 years old. Moreover, there were important class differences between children. Poor children were bound out or placed in apprenticeships, whereas wealthier children were sent to schools or began preparing for careers in the military, government, or medicine by their late teens. Even
in the lower classes, there were various distinctions between youths, because youths who learned better trades would be assured of higher incomes. And, of course, there were tremendous differences in the occupational opportunities available to males, females, and children of color. As a result, children developed specific identities based on their gender, class, and race or ethnic position. The growth of industrialization, along with increases in the population, led to the erosion of these traditions, however. The professions became more difficult for many White children to get into because of the larger number of people vying for entry. More often, youths became employees
rather than apprentices, although most Black children continued to remain slaves. Finally, young people began to remain at home longer, and the period of transition into full adulthood lengthened.45
Another change that accompanied industrialization was the decline of the large extended family. A typical family of the colonial period comprised parents, children, relatives, and perhaps servants and apprentices, but this type of family began to be replaced by the nuclear family. Also, the work that people performed for pay began to be carried out in factories and other job sites away from the home. Not only did men work outside the home, but also in many cases women and children began to work outside the home as a result of the development of industrial machinery.
For example, Samuel Slater, the “father of American manufacturers,” initially employed a workforce of nine boys in his Rhode Island factory. By 1801, this workforce had expanded to 100 youths between 4 and 10 years old.46 As apprenticeships became less important as a way of learning a trade and earning money, and as the extended family declined in importance, childcare became much less of a collective responsibility (shared by family members and the community) and
more of a responsibility of the mother.
Although industrialization brought prosperity to some people, it was accompanied by growing concern about social unrest and crime. There were increasing numbers of poor people as well as people suffering from mental illness. In the smaller, more homogeneous towns and villages of colonial times, people had accepted these problems and attempted to devise a community response. Although some offenders and those considered rogues or vagabonds were banished or barred from communities, no systematic attempts were made to isolate those who were deviant or
dependent. By the early 1800s, however, notions of dependency and deviancy had changed dramatically. Deviant children were more often seen as products of pauperism, and many people believed that problem children could be transformed into productive, hardworking adults.47 It was in this context that new institutions for the control of children were developed.48
The Development of Early Juvenile Correctional Institutions in the United States
The population of the United States grew rapidly after the revolution. In 1790, there were fewer than 4 million Americans, and the majority lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean.49 Colonial America was rural; even the largest cities were small. When George Washington became president, “only two hundred thousand Americans lived in towns with more than twenty-five hundred people. . . . In 1790, no American city had more than fifty thousand residents.”50 However, by 1820, the population of New York City was around 120,000 and growing rapidly as a result of immigration.51 Indeed, by 1830, the United States was home to approximately 13 million people, and more than 4.5 million lived west of the Appalachian Mountains. Moreover, immigration and slavery changed the
ethnic composition of many communities, making them less homogeneous than during colonial times.
In contrast to the influx of immigrants, the population of Native Americans living east of the Mississippi was reduced from 120,000 to approximately 30,000 in 1820. They were either killed or forced to leave their land.52 Although the geographic size of the United States grew considerably between 1790 and 1820 as a result of land acquisitions, the population increased even more dramatically after 1820. By 1860, the population of the United States had grown to approximately
31 million people. Moreover, the diversity of the population continued to expand. Increasingly, new arrivals came from the Scandinavian countries and from Ireland and Germany.53
The United States presented tremendous opportunities for people, and many prospered. For others, however, the American dream was elusive. The New World had always had its share of poor people. Many of those who arrived during the colonial period came as servants, and many of the immigrants to the United States were poor people seeking a better life. Both before and after the American Revolution, the poor outnumbered the wealthy. Moreover, poor and affluent alike faced a variety of insecurities. The wealthy worried about the threat of crime, protests, riots, periodic slave revolts, and various forms of political resistance to their leadership.54 In addition, periodic economic downturns threatened the livelihoods of many people and left many out of work.55 Furthermore, there was no safety net to rely on in difficult times. There was no minimum wage, health-care plan, Social Security, or pension program to protect workers’ interests if they lost their jobs, became ill, or became too old to work. Moreover, most Americans, Native Americans,
women, Blacks, and poor White males had little or no say in the decisions that influenced their lives.
The Houses of Refuge
Accompanying the changes in the social and economic life of the growing cities were a host of social problems such as vagrancy, drunkenness, and crime, including those committed by children. In response to the growth in juvenile crime, the first correctional institution specifically for youths in the United States was developed. This institution, the House of Refuge, was established in New York City in 1825. Soon other houses of refuge were founded in other cities such as Boston (1826) and Philadelphia (1828).56 In the 1840s, houses of refuge opened in Rochester, Cincinnati, and New Orleans; in the 1850s, they opened in Providence, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Saint Louis. By 1857, the refuge movement had expanded to the point that a national convention of refuge superintendents was held in New York. According to its committee on statistics, 17 institutions for youths were in operation in the United States. These institutions had land and buildings worth almost $2 million and total annual expenditures of approximately $330,000.57
The development of the houses of refuge represented a new approach to problem children by relying on formal childcare institutions as opposed to families, churches, and informal community controls.58 The houses of refuge were privately run institutions championed by wealthy reformers who saw youth crime and waywardness as a natural outgrowth of the pauperism prevalent in cities like New York. These reformers were mostly men from established families, and they intended to oversee the moral well-being of the community and develop policies that would protect their way of life from the threat posed by the poor.59 These reformers decried the unwillingness of the criminal courts to deal with children who committed minor offenses. The
incarceration of youths who committed any type of criminal offense was possible because children fell under the jurisdiction of the criminal courts, but the reformers realized that adult correctional institutions did nothing to reform youths.60 According to one of these reformers, Cadwallader Colden, who was both the mayor of New York and the presiding judge of the city’s municipal court, “The penitentiary cannot but be a fruitful source of pauperism, a nursery of new vices and crimes, a college for the perfection of adepts in guilt.”61 What was needed, according to the reformers, were separate institutions for youths that could shield them from the corrupting influences of adult institutions, control them, and transform them into hardworking citizens.
To accomplish the reformers’ mission, youths were placed in the houses of refuge for indeterminate periods of time or until they reached 18 or 21 years of age. Placement did not require a court hearing, and a child could be committed to a refuge by a constable, a parent or on the order of a city alderman.62
Despite the name and the lofty goals touted by the reformers, the houses of refuge were built and run more like prisons.63 Indeed, the daily operation of these institutions focused more on control than on reform.64 While there, children were exposed to a strict daily regimen that included hard work, military drill, enforced silence, and both religious and academic training.65 Another common practice intended to support the upkeep of these institutions was to operate shops within the refuge that were run by outside contractors. In these shops, children labored eight hours a day producing goods such as shoes, brass nails, and furniture.66 In return, the refuge was paid 10 to 15
cents per youth per day. This arrangement allowed the refuge to cover a substantial percentage of its daily operating expenses67 and supplement the private and public funds it received.68 However, the child workers were often punished when they failed to meet production quotas.69
When children rebelled against their treatment, discipline was often severe. Minor rule violations were typically dealt with by loss of supper and an early bedtime. More serious infractions resulted in a variety of punishments, including bread-and-water diets, placement in solitary confinement (sometimes in a “sweat box”), manacling with a ball and chain, placement in a straightjacket, hanging by the thumbs, or whipping with a cat-o’-nine-tails.70 When “reformed,”
boys were often indentured to farmers or tradesmen,71 and girls were placed in domestic service.72 Boys who were more difficult to manage were sometimes sent on extended whaling voyages as punishment for their obstinate behavior.73
Despite the initial optimism concerning the ability of the houses of refuge to control and reform youths, a less sanguine view of these institutions soon developed among some reformers. Indeed, the houses of refuge faced several problems that contributed to their failure to achieve their main goals. For one thing, they admitted a range of youths, many of whom had committed no criminal offense. Thus, children who had no means of support, those who were neglected, and
those who had committed criminal offenses were confined together.74 Indeed, the diversity of youths placed in the houses of refuge made it impossible for them to meet the needs of their residents.
The length of placements also created problems. Because many children were placed for long periods of time, the houses of refuge soon became overcrowded. The number of children requiring placement always surpassed the number of available beds. Moreover, the harsh treatment inflicted on children by staff in these institutions and by the masters to whom they
were indentured when they left the institution led many children to run away.75 Indeed, the treatment youths received was hardly conducive to reform and was thought by some reformers to compound the problems that the houses of refuge were initially intended to solve.
Although institutional responses to juvenile waywardness and delinquency spread during the last half of the 1800s, many reformers recognized the inability of the houses of refuge to reform the large numbers of children needing placement. For example, Charles Loring Brace, director of the Children’s Aid Society in New York, noted that the harsh punishments and military regimen found in these institutions had failed to transform their residents into law-abiding citizens. According to Brace, the longer a youth remained in a house of refuge, “the less likely he is to do well in
One early attempted remedy for the problems of the houses of refuge was placing out, which involved the placement of children on farms in the West and Midwest. Initially, placing out was used to assist youths in finding employment when they were ready to leave the houses of refuge.77 However, placing out picked up momentum by the mid-1800s. Faced with continuing juvenile delinquency problems exacerbated by population growth, the dislocations produced by
the Civil War, and what many thought was the failure of the houses of refuge to achieve their goals, some reformers came to view placing out as a solution to the growing number of problem children.78 Agencies such as the Children’s Aid Society of New York, the Boston Children’s Aid Society, and other child-relief organizations began to promote placing out as the ideal way to
deal with problem children, and they hired agents to help place these children with farm and ranch families in the West.79
Advocates of placing out claimed that it had several advantages over the houses of refuge. In their view, it removed children from the corrupting influences of the cities, which they saw as breeding grounds for idleness and crime. In addition, they pointed to the failure of the houses of refuge to control or rehabilitate youths80 and suggested that the rural countryside was a better environment for instilling in children the values the reformers cherished—discipline, hard work,
Yet the wholesome characteristics of the country life depicted by the advocates of placing out were a far cry from the realities faced by many of the children who were sent to the West. Although some children were put into caring homes and were treated as members of the family, others were not so lucky. Considerable evidence exists that many of the children placed out were required to work hard for their keep, were abused, or were never fully accepted into their adoptive families.81 Moreover, there was little systematic follow-up to determine if the children were treated humanely by those responsible for their care.82
Even when it was popular, placing out was not without its critics. Some pointed to the fact that children who were placed out engaged in delinquency after their placement.83 Others, including
supporters of juvenile institutions, made the accusation that the practice was contaminating the West with unfit youths, an accusation that struck a chord with many people in the areas to which the children were being shipped.84 Despite these concerns, however, placing out continued to be used until the Great Depression.
Probation, an alternative to detention that involves the supervision of youths in the community under the supervision of the court, represented another effort to deal with troubled children. Probation was initiated by Boston shoemaker John Augustus, who spent considerable time observing the operation of the Boston Police Court and became convinced that many minor offenders could be reformed. In 1841, as a result of his concern and willingness to work with offenders, Augustus was permitted to provide bail for his first probation client, a drunkard who showed remarkable
improvement during the period he was supervised. The court was impressed with Augustus’s work and permitted him to supervise other minor offenders, including children. During Augustus’s lifetime, he provided supervision to more than 2,000 people, few of whom violated the terms of their release.85
After Augustus died, the Boston Children’s Aid Society and other volunteers carried on his work.86 Eventually, in 1869, the state of Massachusetts formalized the existing volunteer probation system by authorizing visiting probation agents to work with adults and child offenders who showed promise. Under a probation arrangement, youths were allowed to return home to their parents, provided the youths obeyed the law.87 In addition to the supervision of youths, the visiting probation agents were charged with investigating children’s cases, making recommendations to
the criminal courts, and arranging for the placement of children. In 1878, a law was passed that provided for paid probation officers in Boston.88 Subsequently, several other states authorized the appointment of probation officers. However, it was not until after the turn of the century and the development of the first juvenile court that probation gained widespread acceptance.89
Reform Schools, Industrial Schools, and Training Schools
Although reformers like Charles Loring Brace were skeptical of the ability of institutions to reform or control youths, the role of institutions in providing social control continued to grow during the latter half of the 1800s. The dislocations produced by the Civil War placed tremendous strain on the existing houses of refuge and the placing out system, and the number of problem youths continued to grow. In response, reform schools, also known as industrial schools and training schools, proliferated during the postwar period. The development of these schools was made possible by the willingness of state and city governments to play a larger role in the administration of
institutions for wayward youths and youths involved in crime. In some instances, state and city governments took over the administration of existing institutions; in other instances, they built new institutions.90
Although these institutions had various names,91 they could be categorized into two types: cottage reformatories and institutional reformatories. The cottage reformatories were usually
located in rural areas to avoid the negative influences of the urban environment. In addition, they were intended to closely parallel family life. Typical of these institutions was the Ohio Reform School, which was established in 1857. Youths in this institution were divided into separate cottage families. According to a report by the commissioners of the Ohio Reform School, the boys lived on a farm with “elder brothers,” who were selected because of their ability to inspire good behavior and a love of the country in others.93 The reformatory cottages typically contained 20 to 40 youths94 supervised by cottage parents charged with the task of overseeing their training and education.95
In addition to cottage reformatories, institutional reformatories that closely resembled prisons also were developed in many states. Like the cottage reformatories, these institutional reformatories were usually located in rural areas in an effort to remove youths from the criminogenic influences of city life. However, the institutions were often large and overcrowded. For example, the Elmira Reformatory in New York was intended to be a model reformatory; it contained 500 cells but held approximately 1,500 residents by the late 1890s.96
Another development that occurred in the mid-1800s was the establishment of separate institutions for females, such as the Massachusetts State Industrial School for Girls, which was established in 1856. Prior to this, girls had been committed to the same institutions as boys, although there was strict gender segregation. More often than boys, girls were committed by parents or relatives for moral as opposed to criminal offenses. These moral offenses included
“vagrancy, beggary, stubbornness, deceitfulness, idle and vicious behavior, wanton and lewd conduct, and running away.”97
The expressed goal of the specialized institutions for females was to prepare them to be good housewives and mothers. Yet these institutions, like those for boys, differed little from the prisons of the day. The daily regimen revolved around the teaching of basic domestic skills, the methods of treatment were based on coercion, and life in the institution was essentially a form of punitive custody.98
Although they placed more emphasis on formal education, the reform, industrial, and training schools were in many respects similar to the houses of refuge. Indeed, they confronted many of the same problems. Overall, the conditions in the reform, industrial, and training schools were generally no better than those that existed in the houses of refuge, and many were actually worse.
Institutional Care: A Legacy of Poor and Often Inhumane Treatment
Although the terms used to refer to institutions developed to control and reform children changed
periodically,99 the treatment of children in these institutions did not. Institutionalized children continued to be seen as a source of cheap labor that could be exploited by businesses and could help defray the costs of operating the institutions. Beatings, whippings, and other forms of corporal punishment; bread and water rations; solitary confinement; and straitjackets continued to be the standard tools to respond to recalcitrant youths or to deter would-be troublemakers. Furthermore, youths continued to be placed into apprenticeships once they were released without careful follow-up to determine if their treatment was humane. Both boys and girls were subjected to beatings and other mistreatment by their masters, and the sexual abuse of females was not unheard of.100
The amount of state funds going to juvenile correctional institutions during the Civil War declined, which forced them to rely more heavily on contract labor to meet operating expenses. The use of child labor, however, led to charges that the institutions were more concerned with the economic exploitation of children than their reformation. Indeed, reports of the exploitation of youths in the institutions surfaced periodically. For example, in 1871, a New York Commission
on Prison Labor found that refuge youths were paid 30 cents per day for work that would command
$4 per day in the community. In addition, workingmen’s associations complained about the unfair competition of child inmate labor.101 Despite the problems found in juvenile correctional institutions and the economic hardships faced by communities as a result of the war, juvenile correctional institutions continued to grow in popularity as a way of controlling problem youths throughout the latter half of the 1800s.
By the end of the 1800s, a variety of institutions had been developed in response to problem
children. Yet the many problems presented by children who were believed to be in need of correctional treatment—problems such as homelessness, neglect, abuse, waywardness, and criminal behavior—proved difficult to solve. Nevertheless, during the late 1800s, a new group of reformers, the Child Savers, began to advocate for a new institution for dealing with problem
children: the juvenile court.
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