Early in September 1889, a small notice appeared in the “The Social World” column of the Minneapolis Tribune. between reports of the “lemon squeeze social” at Hamline Hall and the second annual entertainment of St. John’s Catholic Total Abstinence Society was a brief paragraph noting that “the young ladies who have been doing such efficient [charity] work” had given their group a name—the Children’s Aid Society.
It was the first appearance in print of what would become a mighty force for the welfare of homeless and adopted children throughout Minnesota and beyond. The Children’s Aid Society changed its name to the Children’s Home Society in 1896, and in 1903 it opened the first of what would become several landmark buildings in St. Anthony Park.
On Sunday, Sept. 21, the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota will throw itself a 125thbirthday party outdoors at the Luther Seminary Field at Como Avenue and Eustis Street, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Joining with Lutheran Social Services, another longtime Minnesota child-welfare organizationwhat they are calling “Family Reunion: Celebrating 275 Years of Adoption.”
There will be entertainment, food and games for the kids. Everyone is welcome, but organizers are issuing a special invitation to families and descendants of the estimated 46,000 children who have been adopted through the two organizations since Lutheran Social Services opened in 1865. They’ve set up a special website www.adoption275.org for adoptees and their loved ones to “Share Your Story” through photos, memorabilia and memories.
When asked to reflect on the changes that have occurred over the last century and a quarter for the Children’s Home Society, Alexis Oberdorfer, senior director of adoption, prefers to emphasize continuity. “There’s a little bit of full circle back” to the organization’s early days, she explains, particularly when it comes to the age of children waiting for adoption.
“Children placed through the orphan train movement [of the late 19th and early 20th centuries] were older and they often involved sibling groups” looking for placements that would allow them to stay together. “That resonates today,” says Oberdorfer.
Nevertheless, some adoption procedures have changed dramatically over the century-plus since the society’s annual report of 1901, which described the group’s efforts to pass legislation “checking the desertion of babies and leaving them on doorsteps.” International adoptions were unknown in those days, and the 1901 report pointed out that “the majority of the homeless children came from American parentage and the least from Irish and Scottish nationalities.” (Italics in the original.) Was the report alluding perhaps to an unacknowledged pecking order of desirability among available children?
For a homeless child in earlier days, adoption often followed a stay of months or even years in the institutional setting of the orphanage. In 1903 Joseph Elsinger, a St. Paul merchant, donated the land on Commonwealth Avenue for the first Children’s Home Society building in St. Anthony Park. Named for the deceased daughter of another early benefactor, Capt. John Martin, the Jean Martin Brown Receiving Home for Children, was renamed St. Anthony Park Home and is still in use as a skilled nursing facility for adults. The original plan was to use the new facility as temporary way station en route to a permanent home for the children. With that end in mind, only children considered adoptable were accepted at the home, but even so “the period of detention [was frequently] somewhat extended,” according to a 1907 report.
The society closed its nurseries in 1948, after social workers determined that family-centered foster care placement was better suited to early childhood development than an institutional setting. A few years later, in the 1950s, the Children’s Home Society began its first international adoptions with the Baby from Abroad program. The earliest international adoptees came primarily from post-war Germany, but by the late 1960s, the society had begun its Korean adoption program, which soon came to be the largest such program in the United States.
The modern era of open adoptions wouldn’t arrive for many decades, but early placements of Children’s Home Society were not without occasional drama. A newspaper article from 1900 recounts the “remarkable romance of Little Elsie Ries.” Taken from her parents when her mother was sent to the workhouse just after her birth, Little Elsie was adopted by a “well- to-do family in Chicago.” A year later her rehabilitated birth mother convinced a sympathetic judge to order the reunion of the family. Children’s Home Director E.P. Savage was dispatched to Chicago to bring Elsie back. There he learned to his astonishment “that the woman who adopted [Elsie] passed [her] off on her husband as her own.” Furthermore, the Chicago man refused to give the baby up, declaring “that he had become attached to her” and that “he would shoot anyone” attempting to take her away.
And there the story ends, the adoptive father defiant and the birth mother in St. Paul “weeping and . . . forever separated from her child.” No further mention of Elsie or either set of her parents can be found.
Of course, most early adoption accounts didn’t strike such a tragic note. Far more typical were letters like the one from the May 1904 issue of the Society’s publication, The Minnesota Children’s Home Finder, in which “Mrs. M.,” an adoptive
mother, reported that her son is a “nice, strong, healthy boy, besides being so truthful and industrious . . . he is good at anything, whether at chopping wood or eating mince pie.”
Adoption procedures have changed since the era of Little Elsie and the unnamed young fan of mince pie. What remains is what Oberdorfer calls “the goal to strive for …allkidstobecaredforinafamily setting. I would love to say that there wouldn’t be a need for adoption [by the time the Children’s Home Society celebrates its 200th birthday in 2089],” she says, “but I don’t see that being eliminated.”
Judy Woodward is a reference librarian at Roseville Library and a regualr contributor to the Bugle.