UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

From juvenile asylum to treatment center : changes in a New York institution for children, 1905-1930 Seixas, Peter Carr


In 1851 a group of wealthy, Protestant New York City businessmen and professionals, previously involved in the paternalistic Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor, successfully petitioned the State legislature to incorporate a new organization, the New York Juvenile Asylum. The Asylum was to care for, train and morally uplift a mixed group of the City's poor children. While those who had committed serious crimes were generally sent to the House of Refuge on Randall's Island, the Asylum received those guilty of a range of lesser offences such as truancy, vagrancy, and disobedience to their parents, as well as those whose parents were unable, unwilling or (in the eyes of the court) morally unfit to take care of them. During the late nineteenth century, the New York Juvenile Asylum was the largest institution of its kind in New York. In 19 05 the Asylum was moved to Dobbs Ferry, New York, twenty miles from its New York City site. There, it was laid out according to the popular "cottage" plan of the day. Optimism surrounded the move, reflecting a more generalized Progressive social reform spirit. In 1920 a new name, Children's Village, was legally adopted. Between 1905 and 1930, the focus of this study, the institution underwent a number of structural and ideological changes, some dictated by the requirements of institutional survival, some because of changes in the ideas of a larger child-caring community beyond the institution, and some as responses to structural changes in the outside society. Three eras of child-care thought are observable at Children's Village during the period. The nineteenth century moral uplift model gave way to an educational model with the move to Dobbs Ferry. Foundations of the present therapeutic model (today the Village is called "A Center for Treatment, Research, Training and Prevention of Emotional Problems of Children") were laid in the late 20's. While none of these models is mutually exclusive, each had a period of ascendancy in the program philosophy. Each model had implications for the admission and subsequent classification of children, for the forms of control which were exercised by the institution over the children, and for the relationships between staff and inmates. The institution men claimed that these changes represented objective progress in their ability to help poor children and meet social needs. As the actual running of the institution is examined, questions are raised as to the validity of the claims. The cottage system, for instance, hailed as encouraging a more familial atmosphere, in fact was used for purposes of classification, racial segregation, and inter-cottage competition in pursuit of order and discipline. A further gulf between the rhetoric and the reality appears when the directors' claims that they were running a preparatory school for the poor are juxtaposed with the fact that neither parent nor child had any control over the latter's entering or leaving. Likewise, the name change from the disciplinary "Correctional Cottage" to "Psychopathic Cottage", part of a major reorientation in the 30's, does not seem to have been accompanied by a change in function. As the changes in program model took place, the staff became increasingly professionalized. This was reflected both in the increasing concern for training, and in the increasing specialization of staff function. Again, contrary to the claims of the institution men, it is not clear that increasing professionalization represented simply a developing ability to help children on the basis of scientific understanding. It is clear, however, from the changes in schooling, from psychological testing and record-keeping, from the work of the mental hygiene clinic, that more and more sophisticated instruments of control over the inmates were put into place during the period, enabling the institution men to dispense with many aspects of military-type drill. This study adds a significant case to what is becoming a substantial body of historical literature on institutions for juveniles. Conclusions drawn from the N.Y.J.A./Children's Village, an institution which was prominent without being unique, become new pieces of a larger puzzle. If the piecing together is to progress, each historian must attempt, on the basis of his/her own evidence, to offer a theoretical framework for the whole. It is in that spirit that the larger conclusions from this study are offered.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.