Seeds of an idea
Measured only in numbers, it's difficult to imagine the need for an organization like the CAS in Ottawa of the late 1800s. After all, the total population of the city and Carleton County at the time was fewer than 40,000.
But the overwhelming majority of the residents of Ottawa believed then, as they do today, that the needs of every child should be measured by love and concern alone. Even one child in need was one too many. "Children come first and deserve a family where they are loved and wanted," was the overriding sentiment of the day.
And in the Bytown of 1893, abandoned and orphaned children roamed the streets, sleeping in doorways or dowsing down on the sawdust-covered floors of neighbourhood taverns. They scavenged for food, did odd jobs and like some homeless youth of today, turned to petty theft and prostitution to survive. In the words of one area resident, "many children without families had to live like stray dogs".
Out of this need sprung the seeds of the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa-Carleton. And over the years those seeds have been nurtured by the unflagging efforts and the caring of many. Their dedication has passed from generation to generation. Today, more than a century after its formation, the commitment of volunteers, caring citizens and staff are helping the CAS reach out to another generation of children in need.
The early years
Progress in the early years was the result of a much different mindset than exists today. A fear of pauperism and social unrest, not just the well being of the child, was behind much of the legislation of the day.
As early as 1799, town wardens were empowered to bind orphans to an apprentice. In 1827, local courts were authorized to appoint legal guardians for children without families. In the mid-1800s, legislation was passed that stipulated that any city or town could bind, as an apprentice, any minor whose parents were in jail or dependent on public charity. The government was prepared to do no more. It was left for private charities to do the rest.
Protection of Children Act
Among those who stepped forward to fill the gap in services was a group of prominent Ottawa citizens, led by Lady Ritchie. In 1888, they established the Ottawa Humane Society. Lady Ritchie's efforts went beyond meeting the immediate needs; as the wife of Chief Justice Ritchie, she used her influence to bring about the 1893 Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to and Better Protection of Children, commonly known as the Children's Protection Act.
The Children's Protection Act laid the foundation for child welfare. And in December of 1893, the Ottawa-Carleton CAS was formed, joining Toronto and Peterborough as the first three children's aid societies in Ontario.
By the turn of the century, the Ottawa CAS was a powerful voice for the protection of children. More than 200 children had been brought into care, 130 were in free foster homes and 20 returned to their natural parents. The remaining 35 were in various institutions, orphanages and asylums. But if we were a powerful voice for the protection of children, we were becoming an equally effective voice for change. And the most striking change was embracing the view that children should be in their own homes rather than putting into effect the extreme measure of forceful separation. In situations where the child could never be returned to its parents, the Society favoured adoption.
Increased government role
In 1906, the Ottawa CAS appointed Canada's first juvenile probation officers. They were charged with "reforming the children in their homes and, if possible, the home itself". Their appointment was in response to the newly accepted view that children should be treated as "future citizens to be salvaged" rather than criminals.
Another significant change came in 1913 with the appointment of a person to find, assess and inspect foster homes. By then, the CAS had 1,000 children in its care and no structured way to measure the conditions children encountered in foster homes. While the appointment met with limited success, by 1919, the CAS averaged only 1.7 visits per child per year and acknowledged a need that continues to exist today.
These changes, along with the leadership of president W.L. Scott, established the Ottawa CAS as one of the most forward-looking children's aid societies in the province. This reforming enthusiasm was still evident in the early 1930s when the Ottawa CAS chose to "abandon the outworn methods of child care and bring the work of the society in line with modern standards." Among the new views adopted was the goal of doing all possible to save the home for the child.
The evolution of the CAS continued through the war years and beyond. In the 1950s, a stronger society did not necessarily mean a more confident one. Simply put, the society's reach exceeded its grasp. There was a growing sense of frustration and urgency that more qualified staff, better facilities and more imaginative programs-all in place at the time-would never be enough to solve all the problems.
From the '60s 'til today
In the '60s and '70s, new attitudes and new discoveries had a major impact on children's aid societies across the country. Access to better methods of contraception, the liberalization of abortion, out-of-wedlock birth, the liberalization of divorce, increasing acceptance of international adoption, all tugged at the needs of the CAS, many in conflicting directions. At the same time, child abuse was becoming a matter of urgent concern.
Government, through the Child Welfare Act of 1975, assumed a greater responsibility. More exacting standards were imposed and municipal representatives took a larger role in the day-to-day operation of the CAS. Meanwhile, the CAS expanded its prevention programs and evolved an elaborate array of residential treatment alternatives for children with special needs.
By the end of the 1970s, change in society and in the role of the CAS, had become a constant. Our efforts to attain the highest standards, and to meet the most demanding needs, continue amid this storm of change. But one thing will not change. Today, as in 1893, our energy is focused on one thing - the care of children in need of protection.