Bold Ideas Edward W. Sites and Christine H. O'toole Profile the Heroines of Pittsburgh's First Child-Welfare System

By Edward W Sites; Christine H O'Toole | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

Bold Ideas Edward W. Sites and Christine H. O'toole Profile the Heroines of Pittsburgh's First Child-Welfare System


Edward W Sites; Christine H O'Toole, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


When Alice Ballard Montgomery stepped off the Philadelphia train at the Downtown Pittsburgh platform in 1902, she wasn't the new sheriff in town: she was the new chief probation officer.

Montgomery was a squarely-built, 50-year-old social activist on a mission -- to prove to Pittsburgh that poor, abandoned children could be nurtured into responsible adults. She was among Pittsburgh's Progressive Era bluestockings, a unique crop of feminists and social mavericks who paved the way for juvenile courts, child labor laws, mothers' pensions, Social Security, public child welfare, public health and day care.

Pittsburgh's late-19th-century history, marked by rapid industrialization, created great fortunes and great misery. While the rise of Gilded Age millionaires such as Frick, Mellon, Carnegie and Heinz has been well-documented, the contributions of women such as Montgomery, who fought for the city's poor and abandoned, until recently have been ignored.

We recently marked two important milestones for human services in Allegheny County -- the 50th anniversary of the county child- welfare agency, now known as the Office of Children, Youth and Families, and the 75th anniversary of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work's specialization in child welfare. As we looked at the entwined history of these efforts, we found a quartet of earnest and brilliant women who led the fight to find permanent, loving homes for abandoned children and widowed mothers.

Even before women gained the right to vote in 1919, they had been at the frontier of social work, as volunteers or matrons in private institutions. The Progressive Era, spanning the end of the 1800s and the first two decades of the 20th century, unleashed their talents.

Allegheny County Civic Club, founded in 1895 as an offshoot of the Twentieth Century Club, led the way. The group founded the city's Municipal Hospital, drafted tenement housing standards and organized the Child Labor Association and the Juvenile, or Children's, Court of Allegheny County. A new generation of family- service agencies emerged from those reforms: The institutions now known as Hill House, the Ward Home, Bradley Children's Home and the Davis Home for Colored Children (now Three Rivers Youth) were all launched in the first decade of the new century. The new agencies offered women their first professional careers in the field.

Montgomery had arrived in town to work with the county's newly established Children's Court and promptly hired 10 probation officers -- all women -- to investigate cases. Allegheny County's Children's Court was one of the first in the nation to remove children from the adult jail population, and Montgomery was determined to prove that the court could provide children with help, not punishment. A fearless, experienced hand, she had studied Philadelphia's welfare issues and even lived for a time in a settlement house there, documenting conditions in city slums.

Her team located foster parents and long-lost relatives to provide permanent homes. One 1905 report described a typical case: When [the children] heard the judge say, "take them to the detention room," they were pretty well scared. . . .Then came a long talk with the probation officer. Dick said he had a half-brother in Johnstown and would like to live with him. His brother was written to, and as he consented to take the boy and give him a good home, the court committed Dick to his care.

Fellow Progressive Florence Lattimore called the court "the most thought-provoking step on behalf of children ever taken in the District." But Montgomery grew to believe that the city's working class needed far more help. She lobbied city leaders to take a more comprehensive step -- to invite the famous Progressive reformer Paul Kellogg to conduct the Pittsburgh Survey of 1907.

Kellogg immediately accepted. He was eager to study what he called Pittsburgh's "destruction of family life, not in any imaginary or mystical sense, but by the demands of the day's work, and by the very demonstrable and material method of typhoid fever and industrial accidents; both preventable, but costing in single years considerably more than a thousand lives, and irretrievably shattering nearly as many homes. …

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