In 1995 the brutal slaying of Elisa Izquierdo by her crack-addicted mother seized headlines. Responding to the public’s outrage that city officials had ignored obvious signs that the 6-year-old was being tortured at home, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared that he was creating a new children’s agency with a tough new executive in charge and adopting a stringent new policy of removing children from their homes at the first signs of danger.
Of course, Elisa Izquierdo was not the first child supposedly under the watch of authorities to die at the hands of her caretaker–there were twenty-six others in New York City in that year alone. But only when these gruesome stories make the nightly news do politicians step into the spotlight and announce innovative new policies as solutions to this newfound concern. In fact, abuse and neglect of children have always been with us, and the answer to the problem is neither new nor complicated.
The mid-nineteenth century might seem an unlikely place to embark on an exploration of the failings of modern child welfare. But in Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, Stephen O’Connor reveals the value of tracing a dysfunctional system back to its troubled origins. By telling the story of the father of modern foster care, O’Connor illustrates how the haphazard amalgam of paltry efforts we today call a child-welfare “system” developed out of well-intentioned but frequently misguided notions about children, poverty and social responsibility.
When Charles Loring Brace arrived in New York in 1848, fresh out of Yale Divinity School, he found a city in chaos. The “belles and beaus of high society” strolled down Broadway alongside the most wretched of the poor. Nearby, slums overflowed with immigrants and workers who had flocked to the factories that proliferated with the boom of industrialization. Working-class families lived on the edge of poverty; when they slipped over that line, their children were forced to supplement their parents’ income with what they could earn on the streets. Those from the most destitute families–ravaged by disease, alcoholism and violence–often never returned home.
Brace, of course, was not among this crowd. Although at 22 he’d ostensibly come to New York to teach, write and continue his theological studies, he was a confident young man-about-town who spent much of his time with prominent friends like Frederick Law Olmsted, enjoying the “rush and whirl” of Manhattan in posh clubs and hotels. The son of a minister with a keen interest in moral philosophy, Brace had some sympathy for the poor, but it was not until his sister fell seriously ill that he began to act upon it. He started by preaching at almshouses, where he found solace in a belief in God and a conviction that he, as a gifted young man, could do God’s work. As his sister, Emma, neared death, Brace wrote to her of his growing concern: “You can have no idea, Emma, what an immense vat of misery and crime and filth much of this great city is! I realize it more and more. Think of ten thousand children growing up almost sure to be prostitutes and rogues!”