In nineteenth-century America, there were few laws and regulations regarding child welfare. Destitute parents neglected and abandoned their responsibilities. Unscrupulous guardians profited from child labor with little concern for their charges' well-being. Short-tempered or intemperate adults took out their anxieties and anger on helpless children. By the late 1800s, it was clear that an organization was needed to safeguard children’s interests, and in 1882, the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RISPCC) received a charter from the state legislature.
From its beginning, RISPCC was an early advocate of what we now call child welfare. It was a private organization that was quasi-governmental, with considerable powers to arrest and prosecute offenders. Over the course of its eighty years, before it merged to become part of Children’s Friend and Service in 1949, it evolved from acting as a guardian for children abused by the influences and actions of vicious parents to advocating for more economic support for parents so they might create a stable and healthy family life.
RISPCC’s legislative charter gave it considerable power to execute its mission. Agents could investigate complaints against parents or guardians for “wrongful neglect,” for using a child for “wanton, cruel or improper purposes,” for inducing a child to beg or steal, or for “gross and habitual cruelty.” RISPCC could enter homes and remove children, appear in court on behalf of children, and place children under indenture. The court could also award custody of state wards to RISPCC with the understanding that the organization would oversee the child’s transfer to either the Rhode Island State Home and School or a private orphanage.
As society’s attitudes toward child protection changed, so too did the philosophy of the RISPCC. Over time, RISPCC expanded its concerns to include child labor, curfew violations, truancy, child abuse, neglect, starvation, abandonment, sexual molestation, unwed mothers, incest, alcohol abuse and juvenile delinquency. Its respensibilities grew as well: service provider, policy developer, children’s advocate, social reformer, and – most importantly – significant spokesperson for child welfare.
In RISPCC’s early years, the few children actually removed from their homes were boarded with a matron on Sabin Street in Providence. By its third annual meeting, in 1885, it was voted to establish a temporary home for children. Donations allowed for the purchase of a shelter facility, which was located on the corner of Doyle Avenue and Camp Street. It operated there until 1953.
In 1946, RISPCC changed its name to Rhode Island Child Service, in hopes that the new name “might really give a picture of our work.” In 1949, recognizing that duplication of services by private agencies was ineffective, it merged with Children’s Friend Society to become Children’s Friend and Service. It was not until 1962, however, that the state of Rhode Island finally took responsibility for the investigation of child abuse and neglect complaints that RISPCC had overseen, making it one of the last states in the nation to do so.