The New York Children's Aid Society (CAS) was founded in 1853 by CHARLES LORING BRACE, a Connecticut-born minister who had moved to New York City in 1848. Brace was shocked by the thousands of vagrant children he saw on the city's streets, and by the city's practice of incarcerating them in juvenile and adult prisons. He argued that vagrant children were not criminals and that no institution could care for them as effectively as a family home–an assertion that has become one of the primary principals of modern child welfare.
Soon after its founding, the CAS established a series of industrial schools, which provided academic and job education to children whose ragged clothing or need to work meant they could not attend public schools. In 1854, the Society opened its Newsboys' Lodging House, the nation's first youth shelter. Brace wanted to preserve residents' independence, so he made them pay a nominal fee, which got them not just a bed for the night, but food, a bath, clothes, and a host of other services. By far the most influential and controversial of CAS programs was its Emigration Plan, which, between 1854 and 1929, placed 105,000 poor city children with farm families in all of the lower forty-eight states (except Arizona). Beginning, essentially, as a job placement service, the Emigration Plan became the inspiration for modern foster care.
Brace's work was widely imitated throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed, many other wholly independent organizations (most notably in Boston, Philadelphia, and Canada) even named themselves after the CAS. But as time passed, Brace was subjected to increasingly virulent criticism. In the 1860s the Catholic Church asserted that his main goal, especially through the Emigration Plan, was to convert Catholic children to Protestantism. While it was true that a large percentage of Catholic children sent to the country did end up converting, this was mainly because the American countryside was overwhelmingly Protestant. After Brace's death, in 1890, the CAS banned the placement of Catholic children under the age of fourteen via the Emigration Plan.
Beginning in the 1870s, the CAS was criticized by child welfare advocates who held that Brace was wrong to believe that taking poor children out of their families and neighborhoods was the best way to "save" them. Family preservation, mothers' pensions (which were the direct forerunner of Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC]), and community service programs were held by these critics to be far more helpful and humane.
Other critics charged that there was not enough CAS oversight of the children it placed in rural homes. The CAS responded to such criticisms and new government regulations by placing children ever closer to New York City and increasing screening and supervision of placements. While no longer as influential as it once was, the CAS is still one of the New York City's most respected private FOSTER CARE, ADOPTION, and child welfare agencies. It is now most distinguished for its neighborhood building efforts, such as a block redevelopment program in Harlem, and its eight "Community Schools," public schools through which the society provides family and medical services in addition to a regular public school education.
Brace, Charles Loring. 1973 . The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years Work Among Them. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of Social Workers.
Holt, Marilyn Irvin. 1992. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
O'Connor, Stephen. 2001. Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.