Life in Care During the 1950's

Those were Happy Days!  Or so the popular song from the hit television show indicated.

The 1950’s was the era that the Fonz and his collection of friends from the popular television show Happy Days lived in.  Teenagers would take their parent’s cars to the local drive in movie theatre, as Rebel Without a Cause, The Thing From Another World, The Ten Commandments and the latest 3-D film, The Mask, were all the rage.  Sock hops were being held in school gymnasiums, and corner ice cream parlors were busy after school each day.  Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and The Big Bopper were at the tops of the record charts as rock and roll music began to spread throughout the land.  DisneyLand opened up, and soon became one of the most popular destinations in the world, even bringing leaders from across the globe to the home of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Walt Disney.  Television also became popular in the decade, as more and more families brought one for their living rooms.  I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, The Mickey Mouse Club, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet were soon playing on black and white screens across the nation.  Indeed, Ed Sullivan became another household member, as his own television variety show allowed him to speak to millions of Americans each week.

The Cold War was heating up, as the threat of Communism filled American newspapers.  I Like Ike presidential bumper stickers were being placed on the family bomb shelters, and children were taught to Duck and Cover in case of a nuclear strike from the U.S.S.R.  For most people, a high school diploma was all that was required in order to live comfortably; the housing market was beginning to boom, and there were jobs aplenty.  It was the Golden Age of comic books, and it was for many people, Happy Days.  To be sure, for millions of Americans, it was the time of the American Dream, as the Baby Boom was in full swing.  

Yet, the world of foster care was not so idealistic a world.  Indeed, in the 1950’s foster care was undergoing major changes.  In order to fully understand these changes, it is important to appreciate what led up to these changes. The early 19th century saw the establishment of what grew to become the middle class. At the same time, the conception grew that early childhood was an important and separate part of human development. The character of children was to be shaped by internalizing beliefs of morality and behavior instead of breaking their wills, the prevailing approach in colonial times. The outcome was a change in child rearing methods, as children began to live longer and stay home for longer periods of time, instead of being forced to enter the workforce at early ages. The early 19th century was also a time that children only from low income homes were indentured. Some states were required to furnish children a minimum of 3 months of education per year. As states began to wane in indenturing children by the middle of the 19th century, religious institutes, along with charitable organizations commenced to open their own orphanages.

The year 1853 witnessed a drastic change in regard to orphans and impoverished children. Charles Loring Brace, an austere critic of orphanages and asylums, introduced the idea of placing these children in homes, rather than the traditional orphanage. Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) later in that year, with the CAS’s vision that children should be placed in homes rather than in institutions. It was Brace’s personal belief that children should live in rural areas, as he was against city life. As a result, Brace endeavored to place children from urban slums into homes in the country.  1873 saw Mary Ellen Wilson enter the scene. This young girl was found by a church worker when she was reported by her neighbors.  Young Mary Ellen was bruised, thin, and her skin was caked in dirt.  When a New York judge became aware of the situation, Mary Ellen was removed from her home, and placed into another, thus making her the first official foster child.

The later part of the 19th century saw an awareness of the importance of social issues, such as child abuse and parental neglect. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) was created and became active in large eastern cities. Soon, members of the SPCC were granted permission from the courts and began to remove children from abusive and neglectful homes and placed them within other homes and orphan asylums. Families, such as those in Boston, Massachusetts that took children into their homes, were being paid. With this change in policy in payment to families, child placement agencies began to look more closely at the conditions in the place