Child Protection in America: Past, Present, and Future

By John E. B. Myers | Go to book overview

1
CHILD PROTECTION FROM
THE COLONIAL PERIOD TO 1875

The saga of child protection in America begins in colonial times. In early America, cities were few in number and small. In 1700, for example, New York City had only 7,000 people. In 1720, Boston’s population reached 12,000. In 1770, the colonial population was just over two million. Most colonists lived on farms or in small villages.

When rural families were poor, or when children were orphaned, neglected, or abused, help often came from family, friends, neighbors, or the church. The same informal resources were frequently available in cities. When informal resources were exhausted or unavailable, local officials stepped in and employed time-tested principles of English Poor Law, including outdoor relief, apprenticeship, and indenture.

Outdoor relief was financial assistance provided to the “deserving” poor in their own homes.1 Decisions about outdoor relief were made by town officials. Stipends were small but enough to keep body and soul together. Over the years, significant numbers of poor children were supported at home with outdoor relief.

Apprenticeship has roots in ancient Egypt and Babylon. In England, apprenticeship had a long history, and the institution crossed the Atlantic with the colonists. Public education did not exist in the colonies, and apprenticeship was a sensible way to teach young people a trade and prepare them for adulthood.

Apprenticeships were voluntary or involuntary. With voluntary apprenticeship, a master agreed to teach an apprentice a trade as well as provide food, clothing, shelter, religious instruction, and a modicum of “book learning.” Children were apprenticed at various ages, but generally not before they were old enough to work. The period of apprenticeship was often seven years. Involuntary apprenticeship was used for substantial numbers of poor children and orphans. Local

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