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Beginning in 1911 with Illinois’ passage of the Funds to Parents Act—the first statewide mothers’ pensions legislation—the Chicago Juvenile Court built a two-track system for dependency cases that used the gender of single parents to track their children. The first or “institutional” track followed a nineteenth century model of family preservation that poor families had relied upon since before the Civil War, in which parents had used institutions to provide short-term care for their children during hard times. The juvenile court also established a “home-based” track for dependency that reflected a new model of family preservation. Progressive child-savers denounced the nineteenth-century model because they claimed that institutional were too regimented and did not prepare children to live in the outside world.

To recover the histories of family preservation in early twentieth-century Chicago this article first explores why progressive child-savers believed that the juvenile court was the proper institution to administer mothers’ pensions and what the consequences of this choice were. It then examines how placing the Funds to Parents Act under the juvenile court’s jurisdiction created administrative problems for the juvenile court judge, who turned to the city’s philanthropic community to assist him in the construction of the court’s new home-based track for family preservation. After providing an overview of the safeguards established to limit eligibility for state aid, the article analyzes case files from 1912 to compare the experiences of the children in the institutional track with those of the children in the home-based one. It then examines the replacement of the Funds to Parents Act with gender-specific mothers’ aid laws in the 1910s. In addition, an analysis of case files from 1921 reveals that the experiences of children in the two tracks had diverged because non-pensioned children continued to remain at home. The conclusion examines why state removed mothers’ pensions programs from juvenile courts and instead placed them in local or state welfare agencies.

Publication Citation

19 L. & Hist. Rev. 547 (2001).