Since March, New York City’s hospitals across the five boroughs have formed the frontline of the battle against coronavirus, with brick-and-mortar hospitals straining to accommodate the surge in patients seeking care alongside a handful of temporary field hospitals that sprung up to relieve the pressure. Hospitals rerouted all of their resources toward treating COVID-19, leading them to cancel elective procedures, ban visitors, and introduce telemedicine to keep non-essential staff at home. These difficult but necessary measures were geared towards freeing up space and resources for COVID-19 patients and the healthcare workers who treat them. This mobilization appears to have been successful, as this weekend marked the first 24-hour period with no coronavirus-related deaths within the city since the pandemic began. It can be easy to forget that New York City’s hospitals were not always single-minded disease-fighting machines. Throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, they performed essential social functions outside of treating the ill. A prime example is the New York Foundling Hospital, popularly known as “the Foundling,” and still in operation today. Its records, held in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library of the New-York Historical Society, provide a window into a hospital provided child welfare services in the late 20th century.
Established in New York City in 1869 by the Catholic Sisters of Charity, the New York Foundling Asylum originally served as a haven for abandoned infants whose parents could not care for them. The Foundling’s operators quickly realized that the infants they sheltered and the desperate mothers who turned to them for assistance needed a wider variety of services. In 1880, the Foundling Asylum became the Foundling Hospital, reflecting the skilled medical treatment and nursing care they offered to unwed mothers and sick indigent children alongside social services. By 1959 the Foundling stopped provided medical care, but retained the “Hospital” in its name. Its medical programs were absorbed by the now-defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital, and the Foundling turned its attention towards localized programs that provided badly needed services to families and children in local communities.
Under the directorship of pediatrician Dr. Vincent J. Fontana, the Foundling’s Center for Parent and Child Development launched its Temporary Shelter in 1972 and its Crisis Nursery in 1982. Both programs were created to address child abuse, a problem compromising the health, safety, and lives of thousands of children. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1974 evinced growing federal concern over child abuse by making social services funding for states contingent on reporting and thoroughly investigating all instances of child abuse, exploitation, and neglect. Social critics like Dorothy Roberts noticed that the well-meaning law rested upon punishing parents deemed neglectful or abusive with child removal and imprisonment. These punishments disproportionately fell upon poor non-white mothers, who were culturally stereotyped as deficient mothers due to their race and intentionally neglectful due to their poverty, and thus disproportionately likely to lose custody. The Temporary Shelter and Crisis Nursery at the Foundling Hospital took an alternative approach to child welfare, focusing on supports and rehabilitation for troubled families instead of family separation and punishment. The Temporary Shelter was a residence where struggling mothers could live together with their children for up to 30 days while receiving parenting classes and other services and referrals. The Crisis Nursery provided up to three days of childcare for small children at risk of abuse.
Photographer Claire Yaffa captured images of mothers and children who utilized the Foundling Hospital’s Temporary Shelter and Crisis Nursey in the early 1980s. The women and children depicted are not physically ill, but needed professional support and stable environment offered by the Foundling Hospital to cultivate a healthier relationship. Yaffa’s photographs document tender moments of genuine love and affection between mothers and their children coping with the difficult circumstances of poverty, violence, and drug addiction. As the Foundling Hospital recognized, these social problems had to be addressed in order to “cure” the child abuse that would ultimately harm children’s physical health.
Preliminary reports suggest that child abuse is rising during the pandemic-induced lockdowns, as the stressors of isolation and financial insecurity push caregivers to the brink and children are distanced from watchful teachers and social workers who are mandated to report suspected abuse. As the COVID-19 crisis abates within New York City and hospitals resume some of their normal functions, efforts will be made to swiftly diagnose abuse and provide holistic care to resolve it. The New York Foundling collection provides insight into one promising approach.
Written by Caitlin Wiesner, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History