By the middle of the 19th Century NYC, was, amongst other things, home to tens of thousands of homeless children. They were orphans, abandoned children or runaways and they had no choice but to survive as best they could on their own. There were Orphan Asylums and Almshouses which offered pitifully small supplies of food and somewhere to sleep and nothing else. And from there some children could agree to become indentured laborers which meant agreeing to work for nothing until they were 18 years old.
The conditions these children existed in were appalling and one New Yorker who felt he had to do something about looking after them in a more pro-active way was Charles Loring Brace who was a Protestant, an Abolitionist and who believed that children, regardless of their origin, could thrive if given suitable care and opportunities. He gained the support of a number of wealthy new Yorkers who like him wanted to improve the living conditions of these children.
At first he opened lodging houses for newsboys, then he set up free kindergartens, free dental clinics, job placement porgrams, training programs and reading rooms. But the most far reaching program he set up was the Orphan Train Movement.
He started it in 1853 and the idea was to give children a good bath, dress them in new clothing and then with adult supervisors send them via railroad to New england, the North Atlantic states and the East Central states and ask people in these rural environments to look after them. Children of all ages were sent and older ones were usually quickly snapped up for their immediate ability help around the house and work on farms. children who weren’t immedaitely picked, stayed on the train until they had all found homes, or they were brought back to NYC.
Local organizers set things up on the receiving end, putting up fliers advertsing the arrival of the children, sometimes screening prospective carers, sometimes not. There was some exploitation but later follow up showed that the large majority of children prospered in their new homes. The whole concept later developed into the modern day foster care system.
Much of Brace’s work was formalized under the auspices of the Children’s Aid Society New York which still exists and over time 400,000 children were relocated. More importantly after Brace’s death, the work he had done bringing the plight of these children to broader attention, resulted in the codification of a children’s rights charter, their legal right to grow up in a safe and nurturing environment with the backing of government at all levels to ensure