Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How Child Welfare Influenced My Lassoing A Bride Story

                                                         Sarah J. McNeal
Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of time travel, paranormal, western, contemporary and historical fiction. Her stories may be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Prairie Rose Publications. Her website:   

How Child Welfare Inspired My Lassoing A Bride Story

My personal experiences influence almost everything thing I write. It might be something I saw, an unusual thing I heard, some bit of family history, but something that touched my life and made me think I should write about that. Last October in the local news, I learned that a nurse I used to work with and who I considered a close friend and his live-in girlfriend of many years were charged with felony child abuse to foster children they had taken into their home. The charges also included abuse and neglect to the greater than 100 animals that lived on the farm as well. His girlfriend was a supervisor for the Child Welfare department in Monroe, N.C. I was stunned. It really made me think about the vulnerability of children whether in their abusive family, or in foster care as in this situation, by the system itself.
As dark as all this news was, I was curious to know how children were cared for through history when their parents were deceased, unable to care for them, or unwilling to care for their children. I must warn you that my research did not lighten my heart.
In the beginning of human history, orphaned children were voluntarily cared for by the community, or, in some cases, the children were simply left to their own devices. Later, in Elizabethan England, work houses were instituted where orphaned children, and homeless women were sent. They were given meager food and a place to sleep in exchange for work. Children, who were looked upon as little adults, performed the same work as the adults. Malnutrition, depression, mistreatment and disease were rampant. Under the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, local governments appointed overseers who had the authority to levy taxes to help the poor to try to clear the disorder created by the end of Feudalism where the landowner had responsibility to care for those who worked his land and lived on it. It was the first time government assumed the responsibility for the poor. It wasn’t great, but it was at least a beginning.
                                       A group of orphans at the Crumpsall Workhouse

In America, thousands of immigrants were entering the Colonies as England’s undesirables.  Often the trip to the Colonies in tight quarters on a ship caused infirmities and disease so many who arrived were already in poor health. And then they had to face the harsh conditions of a new frontier for which they were not prepared. After the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, there were a large number of orphans who, left to their own devices, often ended up in criminal activities or other mischief presenting a problem for communities. Indentured servitude, such as had been established in England, seemed like a good idea. Children were taken into willing households where they had their basic needs met in exchange for learning a trade that would hopefully lead to a vocation and self-reliance as adults.

Some impoverished families received what is termed “outdoor relief.” Churches and other organizations donated to the families, but critics of this system felt the recipients were too dependent on the handouts, sometimes even demanding more, and not applying themselves to seek work. So, in 1824, the Secretary of State in New York, J.V.N. Yates decided to eliminate the outdoor relief and demanded that every county have a poor house. Housing the homeless and poor in this manner is known as “indoor relief” because it took place inside an institution. Yates  cited four methods of public assistance: (1) indoor relief (2) home relief (3) the contract system and (4) auction. Yates felt these public assistance systems produced waste and cruelty. He further reported that when the poor were “farmed out”,by either auction or contract systems, they were often treated cruelly or inhumanely. Children receiving home relief often grew up in filth, idleness, and disease which made them more susceptible to dangerous or criminal behavior —paths to jail or the grave. In response to his findings, Yates recommended almshouses as the best option to care for the poor, because the almshouses would improve morals and health of the poor.
In 1850 the New York legislature followed up with an investigation of the Alms Housing or Poor Houses and found beatings, near-starvation, unsanitary conditions, and medical neglect were common. Some poor houses did not fall into this mistreatment. Poor houses were not viewed as a permanent solution, but as a safety net when people fell into hard times. The state decided to give funding for agencies such as churches to establish orphanages.
Orphanages were established along denominational lines to separate children from adults, indoctrinate them into a certain faith with the primary purpose of rescuing children from abuse and neglect. The children were taught good deeds and religious duty. Unfortunately, they also required hard work, the loss of individualism and short term relationships with those who cared for them. Parents of these children were required to give up all parental rights. Some education was provided, but the main means of reintroducing these children into society was by indenture. Due to lack of funds, the children were given enough food to prevent starvation, clothes and shelter, but it was still better than an Alms House. The majority of these children were immigrants whose parents had died or had been separated from them. Native American children were placed in boarding houses and taught white ways and values.

                                        Orphans suffering in the streets of New York City

Western authors are familiar with Orphan Trains. The enormous amount of orphans in large eastern towns, especially New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia led to the invention of the Orphan Train where children, from babies to age sixteen, were sent to the Midwest in the hope of finding homes. In 1853 Charles Brace felt the children raised in poor houses and alms houses were suffering cruelty and that city living would lead them to lives of crime. He knew farmers the midwest needed children and felt country life would lead to a better existence for these children. The trains were met by farmers and tradesmen who were interested in caring for them. From 1853 to 1929, 31,081 children were placed in families from orphan trains. Most of these children found good homes. Some opponents of Brace’s orphan trains cited that most of the immigrant children who were Catholic were placed in Protestant homes and that the children lacked ongoing supervision. Nevertheless, the orphan train system did provide children with better homes than other institutions.
With the late nineteenth century came the industrialization of America. Children, still considered miniature adults, went to work in factories and seat shops without benefits or vacations.   In 1893, Florence Kelley helped to win passage of the Illinois Factory Act. The act prohibited child labor and limited the working hours for women. It should be noted that this was a state law and had no effect outside of Illinois. Jane Addams pushed for a National Child Labor Amendment, but the amendment was lost during the Great Depression.
In 1909 at a White House Conference on Children liked the idea that children should never be removed from their parents simply for “reasons of poverty”. They advocated family preservation, and were concerned about the large numbers of children being placed in institutions. The Conference challenged the long standing idea that poverty was caused by people lacking ambition or possessing poor character. The White House Conference focused on the needs of the child. The Conference brought about a consensus that all children need families and that family better met the development needs of children.
The outcome of the conference was to establish Family Foster Care.  The primary goal of the foster care program was to provide a safe, nurturing environment for children who could not live at home because their parents were unable or unwilling to care for them. Child welfare practice focused on helping the child adjust to a foster home and provided assistance to the foster family to help meet the development needs of the child. Some initial problems at the beginning of the program was the lack of incentives for the social workers to work toward the unification of the family and the importance of the birth family to the children. Until this time, social welfare was a right of the state, but the Federal government decided to work with states and child welfare experts to come together and make child welfare a national issue. They wanted to work toward keeping families together and help with issues involved with the parents, especially to help single mothers.
In October 29, 1929, the financial crash ushered in the Great Depression made worse by the drought in the Midwest. The New Deal presented by President Franklin Roosevelt was the first time the federal government made social welfare a priority. Foster Care which had started as a way to rescue children, now began to serve as a temporary measure rather than a permanent placement. Children who could not be returned to their parents were put up for adoption in the hope of finding them a permanent home.

                          Music Class at the St. Elizabeth Orphanage in New Orleans 1940

All through history, government has attempted to help children in need. Though many plans failed to provide the appropriate care or not, I believe their hearts were in the right place. People with ulterior motives or hidden agendas will always find a way to bend rules or take advantage of a system built to help. The public is always dismayed and appalled by these people who exploit, abuse and mistreat children. I believe there is a special hell for them.

Historical Analysis and Contemporary Assessment of Foster Care in
Texas: Perceptions of Social Workers in a Private, non-Profit Foster
Care Agency.
James McCutcheon
An Applied Research Project
Submitted to the Department of Political Science
Texas State University-San Marcos
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master’s of Public Administration
Spring 2010

My story in the Lassoing A Bride summer anthology is Unexpected Blessings. It takes place right after World War II in which I wrote about orphans at the mercy of foster parents.

A broken dream…a cancelled wedding…and an unexpected blessing
When Juliet Wilding’s dreams are crushed, she cancels her wedding plans to Harry O’Connor. But Harry is not about to give up on the only woman he has ever loved.  What neither of them expects is the event that will forever change both their lives.

“When will the new owners be moving in?” She asked the question without making eye contact.

“On the twenty-first of June.”

She slowly turned to look up into his face. “Why that’s when our wedding day was supposed to take place.”

“That’s when our wedding day will take place, Juliet. And this house is my wedding gift to you. Actually, it’s a wedding gift from your family, too. They helped me renovate it…with you in mind.” He lifted his hands to encompass the whole house. “All of this, it’s all for you, darlin’. It doesn’t have much furniture yet, but—”

She extended her arm and kept him away with her hand on his chest. “No, Harry, this can’t be our house.”

“I assure you it can…it is.”

A tear slipped from her eye and made a path down her cheek.

What the hell? Had he been wrong to buy the house? “If you don’t like it, I can change it. I’ll do whatever you want. I just want you to be happy.”

“It’s not the house. It’s not you; it’s me. I can’t marry you. I refuse to ruin your dreams or your life.” She wrestled out of his arms when he attempted to embrace and reassure her.

The earth was churning under his feet and his heart clenched so painfully he wasn’t sure he could get his breath. “I know you love me, Juliet. You’re my dream. You’re my life and my future.”


“The Prettiest Little Horse Thief” by Gail L. Jenner
“Unexpected Blessings” by Sarah J. McNeal
“No Less Than Forever” by Tracy Garrett
“The Bank Robber's Lament” by Sara Barnard


Where you can find me:


  1. What an informative post. And so sad, really, when you consider that our children are our greatest assets.

  2. What an informative post. And so sad, really, when you consider that our children are our greatest assets.

  3. Ciara, I will never understand how adults can do such horrible things to children. It seems like every day something dreadful is happening to an innocent child somewhere in America (let alone the world.) Some people are monsters. I know that these monsters probably suffered abuse themselves, but how do we end this ever growing tragedy? It breaks my heart.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting on my blog.

  4. Sarah, your post touches my heart. Those who abuse children, then and now, are despicable. My daughter and her spouse are going through extensive training to become foster parents because they can't have children of their own. Knowing what they must go through to qualify for the foster care program, it just astounds me that some people make it into the ranks of foster parents, only to abuse the children they are responsible for. How they ever qualify is beyond me.

  5. Such traffic information, Sarah. Sure makes me want to hug my grandbabies. What great research! Best wishes on the anthology. Your story sure has hooked me. I have it kindled and will carve out time soon for a good read. Xo

  6. Such traffic information, Sarah. Sure makes me want to hug my grandbabies. What great research! Best wishes on the anthology. Your story sure has hooked me. I have it kindled and will carve out time soon for a good read. Xo

  7. Sara, wonderful post. Seeing the age of those children factory workers was terrible, but not as bad as the one of the children living on the streets. That reminded me of Julie Garwood's book FOR THE ROSES, in which a group of orphan boys find a baby and take care of her. One of my favorite books. By the way, I love your stories! Keep them coming.

  8. Sarah that was a wonderful, yet heartbreaking post. It is a shame that poverty and cruelty will probably always exist on our planet. You did good research for your book. Good luck with sales.

  9. I realize I'm still fuzzy from the dentist numbing half my face this morning, but this sentence is broken: The enormous amount of orphans in large eastern towns, especially New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia led to the invention of the Orphan Train where child, from babies to age sixteen. I also realize it's a bad (maybe just questionable?) habit to point it out, but it's such a fine article. I thought you'd want to fix that.

    Good work on the research. I don't think I could have done it so thoroughly. Just reading what you wrote made my heart hurt. Humans - as a whole - have so much to be ashamed of in our history.

    And bad history aside, now I have to add another book to my reading list.


  10. Lyn, nothing could have shocked me more than to learn a critical care nurse and a social worker supervisor were the ones who abused those children. I still find it incomprehensible.
    I am so happy to hear you say your daughter and her spouse are applying to be foster parents. There are so many children who have no idea what it's like to be loved.
    I think the system is overwhelmed by the need for homes and there are people who just lie in order to get that supplemental income the state provides for foster children. It's really sad, isn't it?

  11. Tanya, isn't it amazing the kind of research we do for our stories to make them realistic and interesting?
    I liked your story "Open Hearts" in the Valentine anthology. I hope you like my story when you get to it. I feel the time constraints on my reading, too. I have so many stories I want to get to, but my progress is slow.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting.

  12. I was disheartened when I saw those pictures, too, Caroline. I went in with the assumption that child welfare would improve over the years, but it seems, no matter how the authorities try to improve the system, people find ways to do the wrong thing or take advantage of it.
    I really appreciate that you came by today to comment.

  13. Hello JoAnne. I agree, there will probably always be ignorance and cruelty on our planet. It's up to us to keep working toward a better community of humans, even though there we be those humans who can't or won't change.
    Thank you for coming by.

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  15. Thank you for pointing out the glitch in my sentence. I have corrected it. I appreciate you coming by and commenting.

  16. Sarah--you know how much I loved your story for this anthology. I cried, remember I told you? Anyone on God's green earth who mistreats and hurts little children deserves a special hell...and I can think of how they should suffer.
    I've witnessed adults mistreating and actually hurting their own children in public. I've wanted to step in, but either my husband or the angel on my shoulder stopped me. This is why your story touched me. Those little ones who only wanted a bit of kindness and love coupled with your heroine who so bravely did the right thing. I cheered that the children would have HER for a mother.
    I had to stop watching Law and Order-SVU because more and more they got into abusing children physically and sexually.
    I told my husband, I just cannot watch this anymore.
    Your research was wonderful.

  17. Celia, I know exactly what you mean about not being able to watch child abuse on the TV or in the movies. I was channel surfing and came across a movie of a child being sexually abused that was so graphic, it stuck in my head even though I hurriedly switched the channel. The movie was based in the book by the same title, "Bastard Out of Carolina". It made me sick.
    One of the most difficult things I experienced while I was still working in the ER was families that would bring in children they had abused. It's so strange what a creeped-out feeling I would get before I even knew what had happened. It occurred more often than I ever imagined it could. It was one of the reasons I retired early. I felt as if my spirit were being eaten away by the horrific things people were capable of. That a nurse I knew did such things, just killed me. I guess child abuse crosses all social strata.
    I am so happy you liked how I wrote about such a sad subject and that you liked my heroine. I really appreciate your comments. Your kind words mean so much to me.


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