A RICH HISTORY OF OVER 215 YEARS
Founded in New York City in 1806 by a group of dedicated forward-looking women, including Isabella Graham and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, Graham Windham has been meeting the needs of New York City’s poorest, most vulnerable children for more than two centuries!
Over two hundred years of continuous service is an outstanding record for any institution, especially a child welfare organization. In 200 years, we have seen dramatic societal changes and upheaval, including the Civil War, industrialization, pandemic disease, two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement and epidemic levels of drug abuse and associated diseases like HIV/AIDS, and we have witnessed their profound effects on our children and families. Over the same time, we have experienced a revolutionary change in our approach to child care as an institution, permanent family reunification and/or adoption.
And yet, many of the principles that guided our founders, and many of the basic needs they sought to meet, have remained constant. The Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York (which evolved into The Graham Home for Children) was established to care for and educate parentless children regardless of their financial resources. In 1835, The Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children (which evolved into Windham Child Care) was established to enable widowed parents to work while their children were safely and properly educated and cared for. Then, as today, the agencies that would eventually become the combined Graham Windham were dedicated to providing safety, stability, education and family for those children whose own families were unable to do so.
The history of Graham Windham that follows offers not only a broad study in the evolution of child welfare in America, but also a compelling story of perseverance, persistence and caring on the part of so many over the years in support of New York City’s most vulnerable population.
Graham Windham serves close to 5,000 kids and families each year — kids who, like Eliza Hamilton’s husband, survived a rough start in life. Working with these kids, Graham Windham provides family counseling and treatment, after school academic support, health services, and other services that help kids thrive into adulthood.
THE EARLY YEARS
In March of 1806, Mrs. Isabella Graham, President of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, found herself faced with the problem of caring for six children whose widowed mothers had recently died. Rather than commit the children to the grim confines of the local almshouse, Mrs. Graham enlisted her daughter, Joanna Bethune, her recently widowed friend Elizabeth (Mrs. Alexander) Hamilton, and several other prominent New York City women and together they created the Orphan Asylum Society in the City of New York. Soon thereafter, Mrs. Graham’s young charges were living in a small house in Greenwich Village and the institution we now know as Graham Windham had embarked on its two-hundred year mission serving the needs of New York City’s neediest children.
Mrs. Graham’s six orphans were exceptionally lucky to have her as their protector. New York City in 1806 was a harsh place for children even in the best of circumstances. Poverty, hunger, and diseases like malaria, small pox, yellow fever and cholera were rampant. Life expectancy was short and countless children lost one or both parents while immigrant children whose parents died at sea further contributed to the orphan population. And in 1806 there were no official child protective services and no public child welfare agencies; indeed, no notion of child welfare as we know it today. While churches and families did their best to take care of their own, their efforts fell woefully short. Many orphans and children of impoverished families were indentured or placed in almshouses. Forced to work for food and shelter, frequently exploited and abused, childhood became a bleak experience for many.
THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY
The 20th Century brought great changes, both in child welfare practices and in the two organizations that would ultimately combine to become Graham Windham. In 1900, the Orphan Asylum sold the Riverside Drive property and used the proceeds to purchase a 40-acre riverfront site in Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester Country. In 1902, it opened its new facility which incorporated separate, small, home-like residential units supervised by house parents. This “cottage system” represented a revolutionary innovation at the time and would serve as a model for child care institutions across the country. In 1910, the Half-Orphan Society received a donation of a 178-acre farm in Windham, N.Y. This property became a summer residence for the children in the Society’s care; a place where they could participate in sports and experience life in the country.
The early 20th Century also saw great strides being made in the world of child welfare. The rights of states to regulate relations between parents and children were established, giving the states the authority to pass laws prohibiting child abuse and neglect. Foster care and family preservation were recognized as the preferred means of caring for orphans and children whose families were unable to care for them. The first federal children’s bureau was established and, in 1909, the first White House Conference on Children was convened.
THE LATE 20TH CENTURY
The 1970s brought another period of tremendous change in the child welfare system. The number of children entering foster care increased significantly as did their length of stay in care. More and more children languished in care, enduring multiple foster placements, falling behind educationally, and suffering psychologically, emotionally and sometimes physically as a result of years spent in care. Lawmakers were concerned that too many children were entering care unnecessarily and that oversight of the foster care system was inadequate. As a result, federal legislation was enacted emphasizing a preference for intensive family – and community – based preventive services designed to preserve families and avoid the disruption in children’s lives associated with being placed in care.
In 1977, recognizing the changing nature of child welfare services, the Graham Home and Windham Child Care, the City’s oldest and most venerable child caring organizations, merged to form Graham Windham. With their complementary programs and services aimed at aiding children whose families were unable to care for them and supporting troubled families in order to keep their children from entering the foster care system, the two institutions were uniquely positioned to meet the changing realities and challenges of child welfare going into the 1980s.
THE 21ST CENTURY
In 2006, Graham Windham celebrated its two hundred years of service with a Bicentennial Ball attended by notable figures including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Laura Bush, George Pataki, and Senator Chuck Schumer.
In 2011, Graham Windham’s historical archives contain over two hundred years of documents were transferred to the New York Historical Society.
In 2011-2012, we refreshed our mission, clarifying our focus on child welfare and juvenile justice populations. To this end, we made the difficult decision to transfer the operating of our early childhood programs to other organizations. While these programs had been successful, they were not directly aligned with our mission to primarily serve children and families in the child welfare system.
In 2012-2013, we successfully completed a leadership transition. Poul Jensen, our leader of over 15 years, retired at the end of 2012; during 2012, he co-led the agency with successor Jess Dannhauser (who had joined Graham Windham in 2009 as head of our program performance and planning team). Mr. Dannhauser assumed the full role of President & CEO in 2013.
In 2013, as part of our five-year strategic vision, we launched the Family Success Initiative, a set of interventions to support parents in developing the skills to safely care for their children, including coaching during foster care visits, developmental playgroups, and peer support groups. In early 2014, we started the Forever Families program, to provide peer support and other services to families that stays with them after reunification or adoption, to prevent children’s re-entry into foster care.
In 2014, also in line with our strategic vision, we launched the Graham SLAM program, an innovative strategy for helping youth successfully transition to adulthood, through comprehensive long-term support, from high school (starting at age 16) through college or vocational school and onto a living-wage career path, until age 25 (even after youth have left the child welfare system).
At a 2016 benefit held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Graham Windham honored Lin-Manuel Miranda, his father Luis A. Miranda, Jr., Hamilton actors Phillipa Soo and Morgan Marcell, and the historian and biographer Ron Chernow. They were all honored for their support of Eliza Hamilton’s legacy.
Today, we continue to grow the Family Success Initiative and Graham SLAM, and launched a strengthened professional development initiative, including onboarding training for all staff and leadership training for management staff.
Learn More about Graham’s History at the New York Historical Society
In 2011, our archives were added to the collection at the New-York Historical Society, preserving over 200 years of documentation about who we are and the countless children we have served in our long history.