Reflecting on the PTA Legacy: A Challenge for 21st Century Leaders
Sandra L. Zelno, Consultant to the Pennsylvania PTA
Chapter 5. Juvenile Justice, The Journey Begins
Violence? Not in my schools. What PTA leader could say that honestly today? Since the inception of the National Congress of Mothers in 1897, the association has embraced a strong agenda of public education, child health and safety, child nutrition, parent education and involvement, and juvenile justice, to name a few major areas. The previous article in this series presented the legacy of Hannah Kent Schoff, one of the organizers of the first National Congress of Mothers, and the organizer of the Pennsylvania Congress of Mothers in 1899. She went on to serve as National President for eighteen (18) years and carried the torch for all children, ultimately becoming a leading champion for juvenile justice in this country. What motivated Mrs. Schoff to get involved in this issue and what motivates us today to continue to carry the torch in this important arena? Was it something that happened in her community or elsewhere that served as the catalyst to get involved? Are there events happening in our schools prompting greater attention to juvenile laws? Given recent events of state and national prominence with violence, bullying, and safety in the schools, nothing could be more appropriate to examine right now.
With a national association built upon caring for all children, it only made sense that the 1899 national convention delegates passed a resolution addressing the way children were handled in the judicial system by calling for extension of the new concept of juvenile courts and probation systems. Up until then, juveniles committing even minor offenses were locked up with adult offenders, including violent criminal and felons.
Anecdotal stories describe how Mrs. Schoff was reading her newspaper one morning in Philadelphia in 1899 and was outraged to read a Philadelphia police case involving an eight year old girl who was an inmate of an orphanage and motherless since the age of two. Sentenced to boarding-house slavery of the time, she was arrested and imprisoned for starting a fire. Mrs. Schoff secured the release and placement of the child to a foster home and then studied the issue and drew up a series of bills. She wrote, “The injustice in the treatment of this poor child led me to the determination to rescue her if possible and do what I should wish someone to do for my own little girl were she in a similar position.”
The 1900 convention of the National Congress of Mothers featured Chicago Judge Harvey B. Hurd, who had formed the first juvenile court in Chicago. The association seized the opportunity to carry on the work, and Mrs. Schoff led the charge in Pennsylvania. At the 1901 National Convention, Judge Hurd was invited back, this time to announce that the Pennsylvania General Assembly had passed legislation establishing a juvenile court and probation system along the lines he had outlined. As enacted in 1901, the legislation created a distinct juvenile court system (the nation’s second after Illinois),separate detention homes for children, and a system of probation officers. Mrs. Schoff is credited with being key to this movement.
Establishment of a system was not enough for Mrs. Schoff. For eight years, she observed every session of the Philadelphia Juvenile Court and assisted in the establishment of such courts in several other states. She was the first woman to address the Parliament of Canada where she trained probation workers for their juvenile court system. Mrs. Schoff’s activism inspired many states to establish juvenile court systems, especially Iowa, where Cora Bussey Hills was aided in her Iowa campaign by the National Congress of Mothers. As she guided other states crafting legislation, evidence in her writings show us of the superb advocacy skills applied by Mrs. Schoff. In one such letter to activists in Iowa she wrote, “Another thing: You should have your bill introduced by a man of prominence. One who is with the dominant party and who can carry what he undertakes. You can help by requesting every women’s organization in Iowa to write to their Senator and Representative urging them to vote for the bill.” The same good practices are what we know gets legislation passed today.
The Juvenile Court system has endured many changes at the federal and state levels over the years. Much work still needs to be done. While the juvenile court system of today may seem complex to many, it touches our communities, schools, and families every single day. PTA has maintained its efforts over the years to being more responsive to the needs of troubled youth appearing before the court. But the issue goes much deeper than this. The PTA’s emphasis has been more about prevention — identifying and minimizing the conditions that propel our children into bad situations. While we know prevention is worthwhile, have we really examined how we can elevate our voices about family and juvenile issues? What has your PTA done to address these issues?
Like the sentiments expressed by Hannah Kent Schoff, we should want no less for other children than we would want for our own. PTA leaders today need to be reminded of the inroads made by courageous leaders who shaped our association. We have juvenile justice issues pending at the local, state, and federal levels. Our founders truly laid the foundation for the care and protection of children and youth. Do we not have a responsibility to more closely examine local, state, and federal policies protecting our children and making our schools and communities safe? This deserves special attention right now. Violence and issues of safety can permeate any community and any school district in Pennsylvania. Are we being proactive enough?
The July/August 2014 issue of PTA in Pennsylvania will address the next chapter on the progress of the National Congress of Mothers as we examine the PTA’s outreach to teachers and the impact on the association. Stay tuned for “Teachers - The PTA’s Middle Name.”
Note: Additional historical facts for this article were obtained from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Guide to Women’s History.