The NYSPCC Story
Service Initiatives in Response to Unmet Needs 1875-1900
The first meeting of The NYSPCC was held on Thursday, April 29, 1875. From its first year of operation until the establishment of a state-wide central registry for reporting child maltreatment, the municipal police notified the SPCC of all cases involving children. A telegraph link was established between The NYSPCC and police headquarters. The state attorney general and the county district attorney authorized The NYSPCC to act on their behalf in its court proceedings. In its first eight months of operation, The NYSPCC received and investigated several hundred complaints, prosecuted 68 criminal cases and rescued 72 children from abuse and neglect.
So many harmful conditions existed that The NYSPCC realized new laws were needed and worked for their enactment. Almost the entire body of modern child protective legislation is rooted in laws advocated by The NYSPCC. Among the more notable of these initiatives were:
- acts requiring custodians to provide food, clothing, medical care and supervision, prohibiting child endangerment and regulating child employment (1876);
- acts prohibiting the sale of intoxicants to minors and mandating their separation from adults when arrested (1877);
- acts providing juvenile parole for those under 16, prohibiting children in saloons unless accompanied by a parent or guardian and prohibiting gun dealers from selling or giving weapons to minors (1884);
- acts prohibiting the employment of children in sweatshops and factories and limiting child employment to 60 hours a week (1886);
- acts regulating obscene material with respect to children (1887) and providing protections for messenger and telegraph boys (1888);
- acts prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors and prohibiting them from living in drug dens and houses of prostitution (1889).
Among the challenges facing The NYSPCC was that of obtaining temporary shelter for the many lost, runaway and abandoned children and for the maltreated children who had to be removed from their homes for their own protection. When no one else assumed this burden, The NYSPCC undertook to do so. In April, 1880, The NYSPCC purchased a brownstone at 100 East 23 St. as both a headquarters and a temporary shelter, the first children's shelter in the city. In 1888, the adjoining house was added. Even this was not enough, so The NYSPCC constructed an eight storey building on the site, which it opened in April, 1893.
Although the investigation of maltreatment complaints provided an ever-increasing volume of work, it was not the only service provided. Among the many SPCC service initiatives undertaken in addition to the shelter were these:
- the enforcement of child entertainer laws and the processing of child performance applications, (1876-1978, 102 years);
- the daily transportation of sheltered children to and from court appearances and their delivery to child-caring institutions, (70 years, 1878-1948);
- the investigation of children reported to the police as "missing persons" (70 years, 1880-1950);
- child support collection and enforcement for New York City (51 years, 1880-1931);
- the investigations of those seeking the return of their children from placement (49 years, 1887-1936);
- the investigation of petitions for voluntary child placement (23 years, 1880-1903);
- the inspection of infant boarding and foster homes (6 years, 1880-1886).
One of the more shocking abuses disclosed by The NYSPCC were those in what were called "baby farms", private nurseries and homes akin to modern unlicensed daycare facilities. Infants were found sleeping on bare floors, filthy, unattended and starving for milk and older children were warehoused in unsuitable quarters while unscrupulous operators profited from the fees and public appropriations.
Child labor was a problem addressed at the very first SPCC meeting. One notorious form of abuse was effectively terminated by The NYSPCC between 1879 and 1885, working with the U.S. Immigration Service and a foreign consulate. This was the infamous "padrone system", whereby desperate, well-intentioned families were duped into sending their children to America, to a sponsor of their own nationality who promised jobs, training and care for a time, after which the children were to be sent home. Instead, like "Oliver Twist", the children were brutalized and forced to beg, entertain or steal to support the padrone.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the radical concept of organized child protection had been accepted and replicated throughout the nation and the world. In New York City (Manhattan and the Bronx), The NYSPCC had investigated 130,000 complaints, aided 370,000 children, sheltered 84,000 of them at its own expense and prosecuted 50,000 cases at a conviction rate of 94%. Not only were new laws in place with a growing number of agencies to enforce them, there was also a growing recognition of society's responsibility for the protection of children.