Opposition to the Orphan Trains

Common Complaints

From the beginning of the orphan train movement, there were those who criticized the system. Since the Children’s Aid Society was the largest placing-out organization, many of the complaints against the system were directed at them. Most of the critics were leaders in philanthropic communities or politicians. In general, the communities that received the children had few complaints against the system.

Some of the complaints against the orphan train movement were rooted in social prejudices and reflected fears about foreigners or lower socioeconomic classes. Other complaints came about after unfortunate incidents involving orphan train children and the placement process. Some common complaints were:  

  • The children coming on the trains were of poor character or poor health. They were “criminals” and “vagabonds” or they were sickly or disabled.
  • New York was using orphan trains as a way to send their “problems” West.
  • Placing organizations were forcibly removing children from their birth families and taking advantage of the fact that their parents were illiterate or did not speak English.
  • Placing organizations “hid” the fact that many orphan train children were not orphans or were children born out of wedlock.
  • Placing organizations did not all require legal adoption or indenture, and thus there was a legal uncertainty about the status of orphan train riders.  
  • The children were being sold and used like slaves.
  • Placing organizations did not care what happened to children after they were placed, and did not check in on them to make sure they were properly cared for.
  • Placing organizations did not make sure children were placed with foster families of the same religion as their birth families.

While most of these complaints were informal, a few of these complaints were made formal and had to be addressed through conferences and official investigations. One of the earliest examples of this was the 1874 National Prison Reform Conference. At that meeting, a Wisconsin delegate complained about the “criminal” children entering their state. At the same conference the following two years, delegates from other states joined Wisconsin in speaking against the character of orphan train children. This led to a reduction in children being taken to those states, which included Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. The CAS responded to this, and other complaints, by instigating internal and external investigations. In 1884, the Board of Corrections and Charities of Minnesota, after completing one such investigation, stated that, in their opinion, children older than 12 should not be placed out. Although this investigation didn’t lead to any official laws, and Minnesota continued receiving orphan trains after 1884, the children sent there were likely younger.

Also in 1884, a progressive child care leader named Hastings Hornell Hart conducted an investigation into the results of placements in Minnesota. He found that most placements ended well, and the ones that ended badly could not be blamed entirely on the CAS. He found that when abuse did occur, the CAS responded adequately. He felt that the issue was a failure of the initial procedure for placing children – local committees had poor judgement and were afraid to turn down applications for fear of making enemies or losing friends and customers.

The Arizona Incident

The CAS was not the only organization that faced difficulties in placing out by orphan train The New York Foundling Hospital (NYFH) was not without their own critics, especially after the disastrous trip to Clifton and Morenci, Arizona in 1904. The trip was one of the first groups taken to Arizona Territory, and was further West than most orphan trains traveled at the time. The NYFH had arranged for children to be placed with Catholic families in the area, but when they arrived, the Sisters realized they had misunderstood the demographics of the parish. Most of the families who had been approved to take in children were Mexican, not white-European Spanish, as they had believed. The Sisters were also unaware of the local racial tensions between the white and Mexican families in the area. The Sisters attempted to place the children with the originally assigned families, but the children were quickly kidnapped by white families, who did not believe that white children should be allowed to live with Mexican families. The white families then refused to give them up. Eventually the incident made its way into the Arizona Supreme Court, which ruled that the white families should keep the children. The NYFH never sent another train to Arizona, and their reputation was severely damaged after the event. The incident made national news, and led to an increase in assertions that orphan train children were being given away or sold like livestock. The incident also led to criticisms of the racial politics of the orphan train system and American society as a whole.

Responding to Complaints

In many instances, these complaints (both formal and informal) helped organizations improve by pointing out short comings in the system. Following criticism of the uncertain legal status of the children, some placing organizations began using official adoption or indenture paperwork. Some organizations responded to the critique of their disregard for a child’s religion by vowing to only place children in homes of the same faith.

Ultimately, these complaints, combined with shifts in social sciences and public welfare, led to the end of the orphan train. However, these early criticisms (especially the complaint against children being placed in homes of different faiths) lead to lasting policies that continue to guide the modern foster care system.

Sources and Suggested Reading

Gordon, Linda. The Great Arizona Orphan Train Abduction. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA. 2002.

Holt, Marilyn Irvin. The Orphan Trains: Placing out in America. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NB. 1992.