The Next Page: Bold ideas behind Pittsburgh's first child-welfare system

Meet the heroines

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

When Alice Ballard Montgomery stepped off the Philadelphia train at the Downtown Pittsburgh platform in 1902, she wasn't the new sheriff in town: she was the new chief probation officer.

Montgomery was a squarely-built, 50-year-old social activist on a mission -- to prove to Pittsburgh that poor, abandoned children could be nurtured into responsible adults. She was among Pittsburgh's Progressive Era bluestockings, a unique crop of feminists and social mavericks who paved the way for juvenile courts, child labor laws, mothers' pensions, Social Security, public child welfare, public health and day care.

Pittsburgh's late-19th-century history, marked by rapid industrialization, created great fortunes and great misery. While the rise of Gilded Age millionaires such as Frick, Mellon, Carnegie and Heinz has been well-documented, the contributions of women such as Montgomery, who fought for the city's poor and abandoned, until recently have been ignored.

We recently marked two important milestones for human services in Allegheny County -- the 50th anniversary of the county child-welfare agency, now known as the Office of Children, Youth and Families, and the 75th anniversary of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work's specialization in child welfare. As we looked at the entwined history of these efforts, we found a quartet of earnest and brilliant women who led the fight to find permanent, loving homes for abandoned children and widowed mothers.

Even before women gained the right to vote in 1919, they had been at the frontier of social work, as volunteers or matrons in private institutions. The Progressive Era, spanning the end of the 1800s and the first two decades of the 20th century, unleashed their talents.

Allegheny County Civic Club, founded in 1895 as an offshoot of the Twentieth Century Club, led the way. The group founded the city's Municipal Hospital, drafted tenement housing standards and organized the Child Labor Association and the Juvenile, or Children's, Court of Allegheny County. A new generation of family-service agencies emerged from those reforms: The institutions now known as Hill House, the Ward Home, Bradley Children's Home and the Davis Home for Colored Children (now Three Rivers Youth) were all launched in the first decade of the new century. The new agencies offered women their first professional careers in the field.

Montgomery had arrived in town to work with the county's newly established Children's Court and promptly hired 10 probation officers -- all women -- to investigate cases. Allegheny County's Children's Court was one of the first in the nation to remove children from the adult jail population, and Montgomery was determined to prove that the court could provide children with help, not punishment. A fearless, experienced hand, she had studied Philadelphia's welfare issues and even lived for a time in a settlement house there, documenting conditions in city slums.

Her team located foster parents and long-lost relatives to provide permanent homes. One 1905 report described a typical case: When [the children] heard the judge say, "take them to the detention room," they were pretty well scared. . . .Then came a long talk with the probation officer. Dick said he had a half-brother in Johnstown and would like to live with him. His brother was written to, and as he consented to take the boy and give him a good home, the court committed Dick to his care.

Fellow Progressive Florence Lattimore called the court "the most thought-provoking step on behalf of children ever taken in the District." But Montgomery grew to believe that the city's working class needed far more help. She lobbied city leaders to take a more comprehensive step -- to invite the famous Progressive reformer Paul Kellogg to conduct the Pittsburgh Survey of 1907.

Kellogg immediately accepted. He was eager to study what he called Pittsburgh's "destruction of family life, not in any imaginary or mystical sense, but by the demands of the day's work, and by the very demonstrable and material method of typhoid fever and industrial accidents; both preventable, but costing in single years considerably more than a thousand lives, and irretrievably shattering nearly as many homes."

The survey was a massive two-year undertaking that brought eager young Progressives to document the city's social ills. Its 50 researchers included lawyer Crystal Eastman (later a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union), artist Joseph Stella and photographer Lewis Hine. Funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and published as a series of articles in 1909, the survey led to the city's first water-purification plant, which reduced typhoid outbreaks, and to new workers' compensation laws.

Among the shrewdest observers of family life in the region was the 29-year-old Lattimore, who contributed the chapter "Pittsburgh as a Foster Mother" to the Pittsburgh Survey. A passionate reformer and writer, she visited mill towns and squalid homes in Skunk Hollow (now Ewing Street in Bloomfield), reported on conditions at almshouses and exposed the lack of enforced standards for charitable institutions. She began to document the case histories not only of children, but their parents. She argued that institutions became default housing for children who could have remained with their families if other supports for the adults were provided. She came to advocate for a system of care that addressed complex family needs.

"The first step is to determine whether the possibility of life in his own home still exists for a child," she wrote. "It is not sufficient to learn that the father is out of work or that the mother is in the hospital. Modern philanthropy has demonstrated that the unemployment of a father and the illness of a mother are mere starting points for the determination of the real cause of trouble. Is the unemployment necessary, and why? Can work be found for the father and health be found for the mother? These questions must be settled before a child can be justly pronounced to be in need of new guardianship or of institutional care."

The situation, she argued, "involved fundamental questions of municipal responsibility for the hidden as well as exposed causes of poverty and distress."

Government gradually and grudgingly began to assume authority over child-welfare institutions. Pennsylvania established its Department of Welfare in 1921 and appointed Ellen Potter, who had previously managed the state's Children's Bureau, as its first head.

As Pitt faculty fellow Jessie B. Ramey reported in "Child Care in Black and White," her history of orphanages, Potter became the first female member of a governor's cabinet in the United States. With deep experience in New York settlement houses, she published articles and advocated research and best practices for children's health and welfare.

Potter had earned her medical degree at Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania and served in uniform in World War I. But she fought a different battle in her negotiations with county orphanage inspectors: the unfunded mandate.

Pennsylvania could prescribe optimal living conditions and rules, but it could not compel compliance. Potter's agency provided no grants to private institutions for improvements. Instead, the department relied on Potter's strategy of patient prodding and good example.

She effectively deployed and promoted an army of female field agents, who visited orphanages and reported their findings. (Among them were recent graduates of Pitt's School of Social Work, which offered its first courses in 1918.) Basic hygiene -- modern toilets, drinking fountains and individual combs and toothbrushes -- slowly became the norm.

One of Potter's successors in Harrisburg was Helen Glenn Tyson, a Schenley Farms resident who served as deputy welfare secretary for Pennsylvania in 1930. Tyson was an insightful advocate for child welfare in Allegheny County. She earned a Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar. She was also a founder of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. Created as part of a national movement in 1918 to enable African-Americans to secure economic self-reliance and civil rights, the local Urban League chapter continues to be an active partner of Allegheny County's Department of Human Services.

Advances lay far ahead. Shaped first by the Great Depression and later the federal programs of the Great Society, comprehensive public human-service programs in Allegheny County and elsewhere would dwarf the early-20th-century efforts. But in many ways, the bluestocking vanguard built the foundation to help the generations that built Pittsburgh.


Edward W. Sites ( is professor emeritus at the Pitt School of Social Work. Christine H. O'Toole ( is a Mt. Lebanon-based writer. This story is based on Mr. Sites' Sept. 23 address about the history of the School of Social Work and Ms. O'Toole's monograph, "From Almshouses to Excellence: A History of Child Welfare in Allegheny County," which was commissioned by the county and may be accessed at

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?