Reform of the Wayward Based on Understanding

At State Home for Girls Each Case Is Classified, and Then with Properly Directed Help and Sympathy Schooling Back to Safety Is Accomplished

[Newark Evening News, Saturday, October 27, 1923]


When she is bad what can be done with her? As a matter of record, usually, she isn't bad; she is good. By "she" meaning the average girl in her 'teens or even younger. But it is both helpful and encouraging to know that even when she is bad the situation is not hopeless, for the "badness" in many cases is merely the veneer of wrong environment. And no matter how much trouble she may have gotten into, there are capable women, with her future really at heart, whose experience has taught them that in most cases she can be schooled to take her places safely once more in the natural environment of her own family and community.

This schooling back to safety takes place at the State Home for Girls at Trenton, a place bound to be of interest to many, for, after all, the wayward girl is every mother's girl, in that her mode of life has a sure community influence, and almost any mother's problems and sorrows sound a deep chord of sympathy in nearly every mother's heart. A fact is brought to light at the State Home which gives a pull at the heart strings; a very large percentage of the girls there are orphans or worse, some having mothers who have deliberately led them astray.


There used to be approximately two ways of managing children - one was to spank them and the other was to shut them up on bread and water, or the variations of the latter, which were going supperless to bed and depriving them of some pleasures. Another and very extreme method was the somewhat melodramatic "turning them out of house and home," which could only be designated as a complete expression of failure on the parents' part, and but added another problem to those already existent.


Helpful Attitude Prevails

The shadow of some of these old methods still persists at the State Home in the "thinking room," where girls are sometimes left for a period with only their own thoughts for company, and the dining rooms know a "disciplinary table" where a girl who has lost credits eats alone. But the whole atmosphere of the place has in it the "up-pull," "you-can-if-you-will-and-we'll-help-you" attitude, which even the visitor feels strongly.

The central structure of the State Home for Girls is the White House, an old colonial type of architecture, with a broad, shady porch; a big hall done in lovely soft blues, with smaller rooms opening from it, and a broad, curving staircase leading to the second floor, where Dr. Mary B. Harris, the superintendent, has her living quarters. Here the meeting was held.

It put one in mind of the meetings some of us have known "up in mother's room," where we went for confidences and explanations with assurance that justice would surely be meted out.

The white ruffled curtains swayed softly in the breeze and the afternoon sun glinted across Dr. Harris's grand piano and caught the reflection of a lovely blue bowl filled with asters on a nearby table. There were six or seven women seated informally about the room. They might have gathered for an afternoon of bridge as far as their appearance was concerned. But the game, if that it might be called, was a far more vital one than cards - it was Hortense's and Celia's and Theodora's game of life, and the cards had not been dealt in their favor and must be played at fearful odds to win.

A light tap at the door and Hortense entered, bowed to those whose faces were familiar and was introduced to the strangers. Each woman present at the meeting had a typewritten record of the case, containing all available information.

Very gently Miss Elizabeth Munger, the assistant superintendent of the home, spoke to her: "Hortense, what's in your heart?"

Hortense hesitated, then admitted reluctantly: "I've lost some credits. I can't keep still in church, and I've done some other things."

"We are sorry you had to come up here again, Hortense. The last time you came we made a bargain, didn't we; we said we were to do some things and you were to do some things?"

Hortense nodded assent.

"We lived up to our part of the bargain and you didn't live up to your part; am I right? But now you are hopeful of a new bargain before the old one has been completed. You think that by changing cottages and environment you could earn back the credits you lost. Well, you have failed. Now suppose you make us a proposition. You ought to know about what you are capable of attempting; tell us what you think you can do."

Hortense looks down at the floor speechless, apparently a little sullen, and both Dr. Harris and Miss Munger look more and more depressed as they try in their soft voices to gain some kind of an expression. Finally Hortense goes.

"I know we have a lot of work to get through this afternoon," Dr. Harris said, "but I must take a few minutes to talk about Hortense. I like her, and I think things will come right after a while. She is nervous and has to struggle very hard. She really believes she has a 'jinx' and the fates seem to be in league against her. I still feel we will find a way to reach her."

It was learned later on that Hortense left the meeting, went to her cottage and flung herself on the matron's neck in a storm of tears, admitting that Dr. Harris was right and she was wrong, and vowing that in another month she would surely be able to find what she thought she could do, and be ready to state it.


Classification by Experts

In the meantime the "classification" went on. The women who sat so informally in the homey room were bringing all their years of training to bear on the situation presented. There were present a doctor of medicine, a psychologist, educational director, a member of the governing board, the physical instructor, investigator of home conditions - all who aid in the study of each case. Eight points of view are centered in the classification, which acts as a clearing house within the institution.

Next to tap on the door and enter was childish Barbara, whose love of finery had tempted her to take what didn't belong to her. Each council has a council of student government composed of resident girls, and when one considers that the girls in Barbara's cottage ranged in age from ten to fourteen years, and that Barbara had been disciplined by them, though much older, her embarrassment over the situation will be undertood.

"I've been up before the council before," she admitted. "I spilled something, and we're supposed to be pretty careful. I want to work in the kitchen, but I don't cook well enough to eat," and everyone smiled.

"You don't blame them for disciplining [you, do you? You wouldn't like it, if someone] spilled grease and you had to shellac the floor, would you?"

"No, ma'am," assented Barbara. "It was good for me, I guess, what they did to me."

So Barbara was settled for the time being after considerable discussion. A strong trait of "uppishness" was being smoothed by association with younger girls of, perhaps, more strength of character than herself, but whose types of waywardness were less serious than her own. Her fairly capable mind would be trained for a good clerical position, and she would be able to buy the dainty things which she craved.

Then there was Celia, just committed for delinquency. Bewildered, a little sullen, suspicious of what was to happen, she had balked at farm work while needing the out of doors environment. Celia was born in Rome and her record showed she had about every illness that could be crowded into her short span of life, from sleeping sickness to scarlet fever, which had left her with deafness and a feeling that everyone was talking about her.

Her home had contained five rooms, four of them bedrooms, and "the girls had a room to themselves," which had been considered quite a concession by her family. Celia wanted to study art and sewing, but was unhealthily fat and needed exercize.

"Are you going to be one of our best, a medium or one of the worst?" she was asked. She looked up, sensed the wholesomeness of everything about her, wavered and then a resolve was born. Why, of course, she would be one of the best, there seemed no other way open, and she voiced her resolve firmly. She would probably make a good struggle to keep it. The atmosphere had borne her along.

Then the work problem was taken up. Celia was not unappreciative of personal appearance, which was evident. "Wouldn't you like to get thin?" Miss Munger suggested appealingly. Celia's eyes showed interest.

"Tell us some things you can do," Miss Munger went on, intent on physical exercise. "Can you wash and get things clean? You know that's a lot," reassuringly, and Celia was finally won over. She brightened as she left, confiding that "I don't pay 'tention now when the girls laugh, so I don't think as whether they laugh at me when I can't hear 'em," and she smiled as though life was beginning to look hopeful.

And so the meeting progressed. There was Mirinda, who had just come, too, and cried and cried and never stopped, who couldn't be classified until her health was improved and hysteria less violent. Also there was Sally, who had earned all the credits necessary for parole, but was feeble minded. Poor Sally, could she be trusted at her home, where she wanted to go, in care of a not very strong minded father? Would it be safe for the community, or must the hard thing be done, and she be sent to an institution for the feeble-minded? Life at the home isn't coldly scientific and hearts are often saddened.

Withal there is much that is hopeful, much that is human. Some of the children that come here have never slept in a bed. For such as these a regular program, clean clothes and daily baths spell reformation of themselves. Some of the girls are really tasting childhood for the first time in their lives, and dolls are their most treasured possessions. One tiny girl was called out with the rest on fire drill one chilly night by mistake. Leaving clothes behind, she wrapped her Christmas doll and herself in a blanket and clutched her shoes. The doll was her chief concern.

The Camp Fire group at the home is sponsored by Montclair girls, and a Montclair organization also sends the dolls.

Freeholder Elizabeth A. Harris of Glen Ridge is president and Mrs. Leon Cubberly of Long Branch is vice president of the board of managers. All physical examinations are conducted by women. Seventy-five percent of the girls committed are motherless, or have mothers whose influence is bad or uncongenial step-mothers. In many cases the father's influence is lacking and in others the child has never known either parent. Mental deficiency linked with some of these as a factor is found in sixty per cent of the cases. The State Home must construct an environment that will remedy defects that have come from neglect. Work, recreation, diet, environment studies are carefully selected and tested to gain the desired ends.

All girls are quarantined for two weeks on arrival as a precaution against epidemics, and army group and Binet tests are given. Parole workers have personal interviews with new arrivals.

It is always stressed that the institution is educational with an aim to prepare girls for a useful life and normal environment, if their mentality permits. There is no school building at the home, so that regular studies are pursued under difficulties. The girls work on the farm, which comprises eighty acres in all, and garden contests between the cottages excite considerable interest. The girls are on record as weeding more than twenty acres of potatoes by hand at one time, because of the difficulty of obtaining male help and their interest in the welfare of the crop.

Some of the suggestions which are the outcome of the classification meeting are that the "pupil be given higher type of training in cooking and sewing," "correlated school work," have interests and ambitions stimulated and developed," "ill nourished, needs building up," etc., all of which are undertaken through class room, clinic, laundry and farm and kitchen.

Whether the girls have a real appreciation of what the home has done for them is answered by a gift made by them to the home, a chapel bell which may tell them by its tolling of new hope and another opportunity to set their feet firmly on life's pathway.