The Early Years
Athens County Children Services was created December 2, 1876 by John S. Fowler, a Quaker philanthropist from Washington County. Fowler was concerned about the appalling physical condition and quality of care at the county infirmary where the children (mostly orphans) were kept.
To improve the living condition and the care of the children, Fowler started a fundraising drive to erect a new building for the exclusive use of the county’s dependent children. The new structure was to be called the Children’s Home. In a document displayed according to Fowler’s wishes, in the reception hall of the Children Services Office, relating the need for a Children’s Home, and used mainly to solicit funds for the home, Fowler wrote:
“Whereas the situation of a number of poor children at the infirmary of the above named county has for a considerable length of time been a matter of concernment to the writer, he takes the liberty of bringing the same before the benevolent citizens of said county with the suggestion as to a remedy to ameliorate their truly deplorable condition.”
Though he was concerned about the physical condition of the infirmary and its effect on the health of children living there, Fowler was apparently more worried about their emotional welfare and the bad influences that might jeopardize their potential for adoption and a normal childhood. In expressing this point, he said, “There are now in said infirmary 47 children most of whom are of suitable age to attend and are being taught in the room of a building not far distant and on the same premises as the infirmary, and so far, so good, but the influence they are brought under at their home, the infirmary building, renders the situation similar to building with one hand and plucking down with the other…Very many of these children are of intellectual capacity susceptible to improvements so as to make respectable and useful citizens; but though amongst and obliged to mingle with a class very much of whom as to profanity and debauchery are the very lowest dregs of the county renders it impossible for teacher, superintendent and matron to keep them as to manners or personal appearance such as would be an invitation to their adoption by respectable citizens and secure to them suitable homes.”
Fowler recommended taxation of county residents as the suitable way to establish and maintain the home, but was forced to canvass for funds because of prior commitment of county funds for the erection of a new jail and, later on, a new courthouse. In 1881, with $22,531 raised by Fowler, new buildings were erected on a 125-acre farm on the east side of Athens, for the sole use of poor children. By situating the home on a farmland, the children were able to grow their own food as well as generate additional income of $400 a year for the upkeep of the home. By 1905, there were 60 children living in the home, which had cared for some 625 children since it opened 24 years earlier.
A New Era
By 1945, the Child Welfare Law was passed in Ohio, mandating county officials to institute, or take responsibility for, programs to care for neglected and dependent children in the county. Athens County complied one year later and voters passed a 1-mill levy in 1948 to support that program. Fortunately, Athens County already had such a program–the Children’s Home–thanks to Fowler and the generosity of the citizens. The advantage of he new law was in securing an income for the home through taxation.–as suggested by Fowler 69 years earlier–instead of relying on fundraising.
Another significant development was the appointment in 1949 of Rowena G. Sprout as the executive director of the home. Miss Sprout who held the post for 27 years, had just completed graduate study in social work when she was offered the job by Helen Worstell, then a member of the Athens County Child Welfare Board. That choice marked the beginning of a new era for child welfare in Athens County.
Before Miss Sprout’s appointment, the home was run like an institution; the children were dressed alike, had similar haircuts, and were crowded in the same building despite ranging in age between infant and 18 years. The result was a lack of identity for the children. The first two girls set by Miss Sprout were to remove pre-school children to foster homes and expansion of services to provide care for children in their own homes. The significance of these goals was that each child was treated as the situation dictated. The difference between this new concept and the institutional format was that the children were not only protected from bad influences, they were also provided a “homey” atmosphere for a normal childhood. Furthermore, every effort was made to keep a family together unless it was absolutely necessary to remove the children.
While this concept wasn’t really new, as it incorporated Fowler’s ideas, the extension of services into homes was an innovative attempt to prevent neglect of children with preventative rather than curative measures. By counseling with parents on problems, agency staff were able to prevent much neglect and mistreatment of children and minimize influx into the children’s home. Thus, with fewer children in the children’s home, better care was facilitated.
Another important development of this era was the cooperation between the Children’s Home and the department of social work at Ohio University, which provided “on the job” training for social work students, and for the agency, much assistance with a rapidly growing caseload. Adoption placements were also accelerated with the hiring of Margaret Bridgewater, who expertise in that area resulted in the placement of several pre-school children.
The Transition to Group Homes
Despite several placements and the new preventive measures of the family support format, child neglect was on the increase. The ensuing crowded conditions and the need to provide “a place of their own” for teenagers, prompted Miss Sprout to request the erections of two new cottages in 1954, each designed to house 12 to 14 children. These cottages were erected near the main building. Concurrently with these changes, the foster parents, with administrative approval, organized the Foster Parent Association, making Athens County the first small county in Ohio to take such action.
The Children’s Home remained on its location until the path of the new Route 33 bypass was charted through the property. This development was indeed a significant miracle, in that it was an opportunity for Miss Sprout and her innovative staff to complete the transformation of the home frm the institutional format to a family support format. Miss Sprout’s wish for the children to have a homey atmosphere was fulfilled as the agency was not only relocated, its institution (building) was replaced with four new Group Homes for the children. She related that development in these words:
“To have ‘places’ to live that were new and clean, light and airy, adequately furnished and with drapes on the windows, wardrobes, and equipment that work– all these were luxuries…”
The new group home complex was built behind Utah Place in Athens, where the offices of Athens County Children Services stand today. The opening of the new homes in 1972 marked the end of an era of change in the concept and format of child welfare in Athens County began 96 years earlier by John Fowler. It also signaled the beginning of a new era of accelerated growth in knowledge and services, matched by a generous swelling of caseloads from an increase in child abuse. A new abuse law was passed in 1975 which placed sole responsibility for detection and prevention of child abuse on Children Services.
Support from the community
An important catalyst in the development of child welfare in Athens County was and remains the massive financial support from county resident in passing the agency’s levy every five years. Without the response to Fowler’s call decades earlier and support of the levy since 1948, the growth of child welfare in Athens County would have been much more difficult.
In 1972, federal and state subsidies became available to the agency thereby encouraging the hiring of additional professional staff and the extension of services to meet steadily increasing cases of child abuse, neglect, and dependency in Athens County. These subsidies were contingent on the passage of the levy.
According to Miss Sprout, the Children Services Board also played an important role in the progress of the agency. Although an administrative board, the members often served in an advisory capacity because of their confidence the agency’s professional staff. They were enthusiastic about hiring qualified personnel in all positions, and in educating themselves in the area of child protection and care.
The Centennial Atlas and History of Athens County, Ohio (1905)
History of The Athens County Children Services (Author and year unknown)