Members of the indianapolis benevolent society created the Widows and Orphans Friends’ Society in 1850 “to relieve the physical, intellectual and moral wants of the widows and orphans of the city.” Originally, it paid private families to take in and care for individual orphans to accomplish one of the members’ most pressing goals–to keep children out of the poorhouse and to keep mothers and their children together.

The four-story gothic revival building is brick with stone accents.
The Orphan’s Asylum, shown here in the 1890s, served as a home for orphaned children. It later became the Children’s Bureau. Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

The all-female Widows and Orphans Friends’ Society board of managers raised funds through a door-to-door campaign. The women collected sufficient donations, including land, to open the city’s first orphanage, the Widows’ and Orphans’ Asylum, in 1855. A small advisory board of nine men provided expertise on philanthropy. Caroline Scott Harrison, wife of future U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, served as a manager and continued her affiliation while in the White House.

In 1855, the society acquired its first residence and expanded in 1869. By 1875, the asylum discontinued housing widows and only cared for orphans, half-orphans (those with one parent), foundlings, and indigent children, and amended its name to the Indianapolis Orphans’ Asylum. The asylum purchased a larger building in 1884 that housed over 100 children and provided a daily clinic and immunization program staffed by a doctor and nurse. It relocated again in 1905 to a site with four buildings and a portable schoolhouse. The asylum served an average of 150 to 200 children.

The society established a public/private partnership when Marion County Commissioners began boarding children at the orphanage and paying regular per-diem support for room and board. By 1867, both the Indianapolis Common Council and the County Commissioners appropriated regular funding. By 1882, circuit courts sent children from other Indiana counties to the orphanage in such numbers that aggregate public funding from “out county,” Marion County, and Indianapolis appropriations outpaced private donations.

By the 1920s, changes in social work ideology gradually shifted the asylum’s focus from institutionalizing children to providing individualized care and placing children in foster or adoptive homes. The Child Welfare League of America and the Indianapolis Foundation supported the professionalization of social services, and by 1930 social workers and a child psychiatrist on staff counseled the board, staff, and families and placed children outside the institution.

The asylum became the Children’s Bureau after merging with the Family Service Association’s Children’s Bureau in 1934 and hiring its first professional director. The boarding population dropped throughout the 1930s and more children moved into individual homes. In 1941 the Children’s Bureau closed its orphanage and the General Protestant Orphan Home assumed care of the children. The Children’s Bureau turned its focus to adoptions, foster care, and counseling for unwed mothers and families. Also during the 1930s, Marion County’s financial support declined and the Community Chest (see United Way) increased its annual funding.

The Children’s Bureau managed three group homes and placed more children in adoptive or foster homes during the 1960s than any other decade. After adoption placements peaked in 1970, the number of children up for adoption declined but children who needed foster or temporary care continued to increase. The Children’s Bureau expanded with additional group homes, programs designed for African American children, and services for children and teens with disabilities, backgrounds of abuse, or medical needs. In the 1980s it opened four temporary residential shelters.

A residential house with a bricked front porch. Snow is on the lawn.
A Children’s Bureau group home, 1967 Credit: University Library, IUPUI via Indiana State Library View Source

Expansion continued during the 1990s and early 2000s. The Children’s Bureau assumed operations of the Family Support Center, Family Action Center (from Adult and Child Mental Health Center), the Anderson Family Resource Center (to serve Madison County), and Promising Futures (to serve Hamilton County). The last group home closed in 2014, marking the end of the decades-long trend away from group homes and toward children’s placement in individual family homes.

The Children’s Bureau Auxiliary formed in 1932 to provide additional fundraising and volunteer support. From 1932 to 2019, the auxiliary conducted a variety of fundraising events, supported special projects and programs, and donated thousands of volunteer hours. In 2019 the auxiliary became a committee of the Children’s Bureau development department.

In 1990 the Children’s Bureau created a foundation to house its investments and generate income toward the mission of the organization. In 2018, the Children’s Bureau Foundation received a $10 million Lilly Endowment grant, bringing the foundation assets to approximately $20 million.

Children’s Bureau 2017 revenue was approximately $31 million, of which $29 million was derived from government grants and contracts. The remaining revenue came from United Way, individual donations, and private grants. The organization provides a full range of child and family services and operates a child abuse hotline. It served over 23,000 families and 43,000 children in Central Indiana in 2017.

Children’s Bureau and Indianapolis benevolent society merged to form Firefly on April 1, 2021. Preserving and supporting families is the common ground of both organizations. Holistic service to families, especially children, remains the mission of the new agency

Revised July 2021

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