The Children’s Home Society of West Virginia is a private, nonprofit multi-service agency established in 1896 with the mission of “finding homes for homeless and dependent children.”
What began as a dream of a group of Charleston ministers, the YMCA President and the Reverend D.W. Comstock, a retired minister and former Superintendent of the Children’s Home Society of Arkansas, evolved into an active children’s service agency providing adoption, shelter care and counseling. More detailed information about the Society, its founding and history can be found <here.>
20 th Century Activity – The First Half
By 1902, nearly 200 families had applied to the Society to adopt a child. Upon application, the prospective family provided their name, town, husband’s occupation, and religious denomination. In the early years, all applicants were protestant and most were farmers or miners. Later, the qualifications for potential adoptive families were published as follows:
- Must be God-fearing, Sabbath-observing and Church-going people.
- Must be financially able to school and provide for the child.
- Must be sufficiently intelligent to know how a child should be raised.
- Must own their home.
- Must be well recommended as being above qualified by three or more reliable persons.
Most children placed remained with their adoptive families, although some were returned to the Society, others ran away and some were sent to reform schools.
During the first decade of the 20 th Century, the West Virginia Legislature passed a significant number of child welfare reform laws including prohibiting the abandonment of children, the use of children in certain forms of labor, requiring fathers to provide for the support of their wives and children, and requiring compulsory school attendance for children seven to fourteen in certain counties of the state. However, more remained to be done in this area and child placement agencies had to exercise some care that children placed for adoption would not be used as servants or indentured labor in a family business.
The Davis Shelter received its 1,000 th child in 1920. The facility housed 36 wards of the Society. Boys made up two-thirds of the shelter’s children, most were between the ages of seven and ten.
West Virginia ’s agricultural regions did not feel the full impact of the Great Depression until the drought of 1930-1931. Dysentery became an annual spring epidemic among children in rural areas. By 1933, outbreaks of typhoid and diphtheria were emerging in McDowell County . The records of the Society indicate an increase to between 90 and 100 children per month, no doubt as a result of these youth epidemics.
Between June, 1934 and May, 1935, the Davis Shelter cared for 128 children.
After ignoring children’s issues through much of the 1930’s, the legislatures of 1939 – 1945 moved to safeguard adoption procedures and extend more rights to children. Lawmakers required that all county wards be provided with medical care, both physical and mental. In 1941, the legislature created a state licensing board to oversee adoptions and child caring agencies, mandating that only agencies licensed by the Department of Public Assistance could accept children and have involvement in the adoption process.
In 1946, the year of the Society’s 50 th anniversary, the Child Welfare League of America made its first study of the Society and its programs leading to a modernization of the Society’s methods. The initial study found that the Society was trying to do too much for too many children with too few professional counselors. It also strongly recommended placing infants in foster homes rather than in the shelter as the preferred method of child care.
By the Society’s 50 th anniversary on May 4, 1946 , 2,270 children had been received as wards of the Society and temporary care had been provided for 1,950 children.
In the fall of 1950, the Society’s Board of Directors redefined the services offered by the agency into three classifications: the placement of children for adoption, emergency shelter care, and special care for abused and neglected children. To better support the newly aligned services, in February, 1951, the Society created the position of director of social services responsible for adoption case work for emotionally disturbed children.
In the spring of 1952, the Society’s social services department was further expanded to include child placement in foster and adoptive homes, casework for children in the Davis Child Shelter, casework for unwed mothers before and after the births of their children, and counseling for boarding home mothers responsible for the care of infants prior to adoption.
By 1953, and following a new policy of placing infants and young children in foster care rather than in the shelter, the number of children in residence at Davis was reduced to 35 while the number of children receiving temporary care stayed at earlier, higher levels. For the first time, the Society sealed records of adopted children making them available only to foster parents and the children themselves when they reached the age of 18. The Board of Directors also accepted a <Declaration of Policy> setting forth minimum standards for the receiving of children into the Society’s care and their placement.
In 1956, the Society began one of its most successful, but most costly, programs encouraging unwed mothers to consider adoption through the private agency through the provision of medical attention, counseling and delivery services without cost. In less than a year, the financial crisis forced the Society to rescind the new program and once more serve only unwed mothers able to pay for their care.
In 1959, two pieces of legislation helped move adoption forward. West Virginia law permitted an unmarried mother to request the return of her surrendered child within 120 days after the baby had been turned over to a licensed child care agency. This law allowed mothers to avoid maternity costs, yet regain custody of their babies. This law was changed to provide for immediate placement of children surrendered by unwed mothers. The legislature also passed an act requiring the written approval of a judge for any parent under the age of 21 to surrender a child for adoption.
At the same time, to raise needed income for the Society, the Board of Directors instituted a $250 adoption fee for the first time. The adoption fee would raise some concerns over “baby buying,” and a Huntington Circuit Court judge overruled two of the first adoptions under this fee. After meeting with the Society’s attorneys and the adopting families, the judge consented and the matter never again became a legal issue.
The Society’s evolution through the 1950s was dramatic. The number of adoptions increased from nine in 1953 to 38 in 1958, and despite financial strains, the number of unwed mothers in care rose from 12 to more than 52 over those same years. The goal of placing foster care and counseling above residential care had become a reality, and by 1958, the Society was spending more on adoption and case work services than other programs combined.
By 1961, the Davis Child Shelter was closed. However, the years between its closing and true revitalization of the agency in the early 1980s provided time for a much-needed search for a new identity, both publicly and internally.
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