Lesli Suggs, LICSW, and Michael Semel, PhD

The following is an excerpt. To download Reflections on Child Welfare Areas of Practice, Issues, and Service Populations, Volume 1, click here.

The Home for Little Wanderers, based in Boston, is the nation’s oldest private child welfare organization. The Home’s history traces back to 1799, when Abigail Adams helped establish the Boston Female Asylum, an orphanage charged with the care of “indigent girls.” While the earliest history of our organization was centered around the provision of out-of-home placement services, the seeds of permanency-focused thinking existed from the very beginning. From the outset, adoption in support of permanency for young children was often viewed as the primary goal of the services we provided. Beginning in the early 1860’s, the Boston Children’s Aid Society (BCAS), which would later become a part of the Home in 1999, was born. BCAS provided homes to children who, at the time, had just been released from jail but soon expanded its role to the care of homeless and destitute children in and around Boston. The organization provided aid in the form of temporary housing, running a probation agency, investigating potential occurrences of abuse or neglect, and establishing neighborhood libraries for children throughout the city. In 1867, the Massachusetts Infant Asylum, the first foundling hospital in the United States—which also would become part of the Home—was formed. Around this same time, the Home began sending children west on “orphan trains” to live with rural adoptive families.

Over the last 35-plus years, the breadth of services the Home provides has shifted dramatically. While we still provide out-of-home care for youth that cannot be safely served in the community, approximately 60% of the Home’s business involves work to maintain children in the community with their families.

Beginning in 2014, current Home for Little Wanderers president and CEO Lesli Suggs articulated a new vision for our work: As we continued to do everything possible to maintain and support youth living at home with family, we also needed to take a more active role in shaping more positive permanency outcomes for those youth who did require an out-of-home placement. No longer would we be satisfied with the more traditional role division where state agencies in Massachusetts sorted out permanency plans for youth and our agency focused exclusively on “treatment.” Instead, we needed to partner with the state and take responsibility for being a more effective part of identifying viable permanency solutions. We recognized that permanency work is the most critical part of the treatment. How did we get here and where are we going next?

Lesli Suggs, LICSW, is president and CEO of the Home for Little Wanderers in Boston. She is the first social worker in a generation to lead the nation’s oldest child welfare agency.

Michael Semel, PhD, is Vice President of Clinical Quality and Outcomes at the Home for Little Wanderers. His goal is to help every child we serve envision a positive future that includes connection to family.