On April 19, 1896, a man named D.W. Comstock stepped off a train in Huntington. Comstock was a Methodist minister who had been inspired by the work of other American Protestants in the social reform movement.
One of the biggest social problems of Comstock’s day was child homelessness. The Industrial Revolution had fueled massive migration from farms to cities. Families packed into substandard urban housing soon spread typhoid, smallpox, yellow fever and influenza. Millions died, leaving orphaned children to fend for themselves like feral animals.
The numbers were staggering. “In 1850, there were an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 homeless children in New York City,” Andrea Warren wrote in a 1998 Washington Post article. “At the time, New York City’s population was only 500,000.”
Another Methodist minister, Charles Loring Brace, had been inspired by his parents’ work as abolitionists. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, Brace moved his ministry from the pulpit to the streets of New York City in 1853.
He had studied the European model for dealing with orphans. In England, for example, homeless children were simply warehoused in orphanages. Stories of the squalor of these facilities were vividly chronicled by Victorian writers like Charles Dickens.
Brace established the Children’s Aid Society, whose first action was to create a home for the hundreds of orphaned newsboys living in gangs. “These houses provided basic room and board at low prices to homeless children who hawked newspapers on the streets of American cities,” Loring wrote in his letters. Author Horatio Alger would draw from the stories of these boys for his rags-to-riches narratives.
But Brace saw that group homes and orphanages did not provide the nurturing environment children needed to grow into stable adults. These children needed families.
The answer lay in the Midwest. The westward expansion created a demand for farm labor. Brace had the vision to put two needs together. Thus, the “Orphan Train” was born.
The Orphan Train Movement ran between 1854-1929 and placed at least 250,000 homeless children with families who ran farms, according to Shaley George, curator of the Orphan Train Museum in Concordia, Kansas. It marked the beginning of modern foster care in America.
The Children’s Aid Society served as the model for the Children’s Home Society and other groups that sprang up in the wake of social reform. Children’s Home Societies were established in many states. The movement spread along with Protestantism — particularly Methodism — in America.
Rev. D.W. Comstock, a retired minister and former superintendent of the Children’s Home Society of Arkansas, brought the movement to West Virginia. According to the CHS website, “Traveling by rail, Rev. Comstock gathered up West Virginia’s homeless children, finding them homes, raising money and promoting the work of the Society.” He would go on to found the Children’s Home Society of Florida in 1902.
While the mission of CHS has basically never changed — “We believe every child deserves a lifetime family” — the approach to finding permanent homes for children in West Virginia has changed over the past 119 years. Today, CHS provides comprehensive child welfare, behavioral health, social casework and advocacy services to more than 6,887 children representing nearly 30,000 families each year.
The nonprofit is funded through various public and private grants as well as fundraising projects. An audit of their 2017 operations showed assets of more than $12 million; the bulk of their funding comes from government reimbursements and private and government grants.
CHS has 14 locations, 10 emergency child shelters, statewide adoption and foster care programs, as well as statewide volunteer/mentoring programs and 15 other family support and intervention programs.
Current programs include adoption, foster care, in-home and in-community services for children and families, emergency shelter care, respite, mediation, parent education training, prenatal and early childhood services, volunteer and mentoring, youth services, visitation and reunification, school-based social work, day care, and comprehensive assessment services.
The Children’s Home Society of West Virginia needs donors, foster families and volunteers. For more information, call 304-346-0795 or visit the agency’s website at childhswv.org.