Widows and Courts: Administering the Funds to Parents Act, March 18, 1914

Widows and the Courts
Administering the Funds to Parents Act
By Jane Addams

THE eighteenth Century abuses of the old poor law relief in England have so frightened the entire English-speaking world that well-informed men have ever since carefully avoided dispensing public money for outdoor relief, and have assumed that the only sound basis for caring for the poor in their own homes must be through funds collected and disbursed by charitable agencies.

There has gradually arisen what the psychologists would call "an instinctive inhibition" -- an assumption that public funds, per se, demoralize the poor and are certain to be dispensed according to the political ambition of the party in power or in order to pay its political debts.

Or course, this position is many times well taken, but has the corruption of public relief funds been so universal that good citizens are justified in protesting against the use of the taxpayers' money for the care of the poor in their own homes, and are they obliged to be content for evermore with the inadequate sums which philanthropic people can be induced to give?

We may illustrate from the widows' pensions or, as it is technically called, the funds to parents act, as it has been administered for three years by the juvenile court of Cook County for the benefit of Chicago's children. The [enactment of this law was urged by Judge] Pinckney of the juvenile [court,] not to relieve the charitable agencies but on the ground that so long as the county paid for dependent children -- placed in industrial schools -- ten dollars a month for boys and fifteen dollars a month for girls, it would be no more costly to pay such sums to the mothers. In the cases where children were taken from their parents solely because of poverty it would avoid the cruelty and wrong of a family separation.

During the first year of the administration of this law a corps of five assistants, appointed and maintained by the leading philanthropic organizations of the city, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant, met in conference upon various cases brought before the court, and after careful investigation and discussion recommended to the court whether the case should receive a pension. Their routine work was not unlike that of a conference committee of the charity organization society. The representative at this conference who had been selected and salaried by the settlements of Chicago had had long experience in the United Charities of the city. Gradually, however, certain probation officers were trained and set aside for this work whose business it is to visit the families receiving pensions in order to see that the money is properly spent for the nourishment and care of the children.

At the present moment seventeen of the seventy-six probation officers attached to the juvenile court are in the mothers' pension division. One of these officers, living at Hull-House, who is a graduate of the School of Civics and Philanthropy, testifies that her daily work is very similar to that which she formerly performed for a year for the United Charities of Chicago. The chief probation officer, who was formerly identified with philanthropic and reform organizations, is convinced that the work in this department compares favorably with that carried on by charitable societies.

It is, of course, a matter of little consequence whether carefully trained people, devoting their time to the widowed and the fatherless, are salaried from the donations of benevolent people or from the taxes which these same people and many others have paid into the public treasury, provided only that the work is well done.

The first year of the operation of the funds to parents act, Cook County paid out in this way $75,000. The expenditure of the second year was $140,000, although the number of dependent children sent to the industrial schools was not lessened during that time but actually increased. This would seem to indicate either that numbers of children who had not been discovered by the volunteer agencies, had previously been inadequately cared for, or that the Funds to Parents department of the juvenile court was carelessly administered. It [would be hardly necessary to consider] the latter charge in the light of the figures that during the year 1913, 895 families applied for the so-called pension which was granted only to 185 families, including 629 children.

The average pension granted to a family was $27.61 a month or $8.12 per child. These families, added to those already on the list, reaches 358, making a total of 1,108 children. Out of this large number -- all of them children of the very poorest families in the city -- there were during the last year only two truants and one delinquent brought into the juvenile court. If the mothers had been at work and compelled to leave their children to their own devices during many hours of the day, it is doubtless safe to say that the number of truants and delinquents would have been much larger.

The delinquent boy was but one out of 1,363 other delinquent boys brought into court during the same year, although the percentage of delinquency is always higher among dependents.

A dietitian connected with the juvenile court visits the family receiving the pension, and together with the probation officer makes a continuous effort to induce the mother to spend her pension for nourishing food and intelligent care. These families are constantly being standardized, and the mother may come to feel a certain sense of dignity that to her is entrusted the rearing of a child who is the <a> ward of the court and considered of such importance that his maintenance is paid for and his upbringing supervised from public funds.

No doubt there is much stupidity and inefficiency in the rearing of children in many homes, for which nevertheless it is totally impossible to secure supervision, due perhaps to those other English traditions concerning ["the home is a] castle" and "mothers' intuitive wisdom." Possibly the well-trained probation officer will succeed in raising the standard of other homes in her district -- those blessed with wage-earning fathers and devoted mothers, in which children are notwithstanding poorly cared for because no standard or incentive is ever brought in from the outside.

Certainly, home finding societies, through their competent visitors, often bring advanced methods of feeding and care to the guardian of a "boarded-out" child, so that all the other families in a remote community are standardized by the one household which is more willing to acknowledge that it is not competent because it is forced to admit that it is not normal. Perhaps no dogma is more baffling than this "counsel of imperfection."

At the last session of the legislature the juvenile court law was amended so that no children could be beneficiaries of its funds whose fathers had not been naturalized, and children whose fathers had deserted for less than five years [were also deprived of the advantage of] the Fund. Under the first restriction 219 families were dropped, although it is hard to see why 703 children should be uncared for if it is the object of the law to make possible the rearing of worthy citizens. Certainly no mother finds it more difficult both to work and care for her children than the newly arrived immigrant woman. The other children, whose fathers desert and reappear, remain as they always do to confound and perplex any agency which endeavors to help them.

In addition to the funds to parents department, the Cook County investigators of the county court are collecting $29,000 yearly from the relatives of indigent persons for their support, and the court of domestic relations is forcing recreant husbands to contribute $100,000 annually to the support of their families.

Civilized communities have long trusted the courts with the property of minor children and with the administration of justice when conflicting claims [are] presented. Why should society hesitate to believe that a court such as the juvenile court cannot honestly and effectively administer the funds involved in this new department of outdoor relief, if it may be called so? Certainly, the experience in Chicago shows that it is possible under good conditions to expend public money through public officials on the whole, as wisely as the charitable agencies in the same city, previously cared for a lesser number.