For sixty-one years, an imposing, three-story building on Tobey Street operated by the Providence Children's Friend Society provided shelter and refuge to the children of Providence. Hundreds of children without hope – orphaned, neglected, abandoned – entered through the doors. Within the safety of the brick walls, they dreamed of second chances, aspirations, and life with new foster families.
Constructed in 1863, the Tobey Street Home had been a model of modern construction. Now, in 1926, the building was a creaking relic of a bygone age. The worn stairs sagged from generations of pounding feet. The basement boiler gurgled and leaked, fitfully heating the drafty building. Finally, the doors of the Tobey Street Home closed for the last time.
The Providence Children’s Friend Society did not end with the closure of the Tobey Street Home in 1926 – today it remains the oldest social service organization in the state that addresses the needs of neglected, orphaned, or abandoned children. Founded in 1834 by Harriet Ware, a young, idealistic schoolteacher in Providence’s India Point neighborhood, the institution has continually reinvented itself over the decades.
Initially, Harriet Ware offered assistance and makeshift accommodations to children in need, soliciting donations from churches and community institutions all across Providence. Upon the official incorporation of the Providence Children’s Friend Society, the founders expressed their principles regarding the care of dependent children:
The design of the institution embraces all children who are in condition of orphanage and that this is the only institution in the State, where any provision is made for their support and education. More comprehensive, however, in operation than a restricted orphan asylum, it is intended, also, to extend its blessings to those who are equally destitute, and perhaps more afflicted, than the bereaved and fatherless.
Most importantly, the society welcomed all children in need, whether they were officially considered “orphans” or not, and dedicated itself to providing the children in its care with an education. With the support of many prominent citizens of Providence, a small orphanage was opened, where children might stay for a time before being placed out with a foster family.
The orphanage moved several times, necessitated by the growing number of children in the society’s care, until the spacious Tobey Street Home was constructed during the Civil War. By the 1920s, however, the expense of running the orphanage and the changing nature and philosophy of child welfare convinced the institution’s directors to reconsider their approach.
Children’s Friend Society began to focus on other work, including general casework, adoption, and foster care placement and supervision. In 1949, the society merged with the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Now known as Children’s Friend and Service of Rhode Island, the merged organization honors its long history by operating offices in both Providence and Central Falls and by continuing to provide assistance and advice to families with children in need.