The Watertown Asylum for orphan and destitute children was opened March 1, 1859, and without a day’s preparation, that a home might be made for the reception of two orphans, whose mother had been accidentally killed the night previous. Miss Frazier, from the highlands of Scotland, a woman of devoted piety, manifested in gathering the little waifs of our community into a Sunday-school, and most persistently caring for them, had been asked if an exigency like to this should occur, would she at once take charge of a ‘Home’ as matron? Without hesitation she assented. A small tenement-house in the suburbs of the town was rented, needful furniture from several homes sent in, wood supplied, a fire kindled…and the ‘Watertown Home’ was fairly begun.
–From History of Jefferson County, NY, by S.W. Durant and H.B. Peirce, published in 1878 by L.H. Everts & Co., Philadelphia
This early account describing the start of the orphanage which evolved into the Children’s Home of Jefferson County was attributed in later years to Mrs. Robert (Cornelia) Lansing, whose portrait hangs in our Administration Building lobby. The institution founded by Mrs. Lansing and other leading citizens of Watertown was the first nonprofit human services agency established in Jefferson County. It was incorporated May 11, 1859 as the Watertown Home for Destitute and Friendless Orphans and Children. The orphanage outgrew several rental houses in its early years, but thanks to $5,000 raised privately and another $5,000 provided by New York State, its first permanent home was built. In 1864, some 50 orphans moved into a new three-story building located on Franklin Street near Keyes Avenue. That same year the institution’s name was changed to the Jefferson County Orphan Asylum in recognition that orphaned and pauper children from throughout the county were being sent for care. Several major additions were later made to the structure.
In 1918 the institution acquired 14 acres of land (including the Dunlap farmhouse) on State Street, our current site. This anticipated the construction of a new orphanage and the implementation of a “cottage system” care model, which would provide a less institutional and more family-like atmosphere. Ground was broken in 1927, and children moved in late the following year. In 1930 our name became the Children’s Home of Jefferson County.
While it was billed as an orphanage, many of the children in residence were not “full orphans.” Often at least one and sometimes both parents were living. Children were placed here by the city, towns and county when their parents were unable to adequately care for them due to poverty or other circumstances. In addition to these “public charges,” there were private placements by parents unable to provide a family home because of finances or loss of a spouse. As the county and state became increasingly involved in placements, the orphanage became more of a foster care institution. But throughout the 1960s, the trend was away from institutionalized foster care in favor of home placements. In 1972 the Children’s Home amended its charter to accept youth who are wards of the court system, marking our transition into a residential treatment facility.
Programs and physical facilities have grown since the 1970s with the addition of the school and skills buildings and the gymnasium. The garage and maintenance shop followed, with the centralized kitchen and dining room additions in 2003 and 2004. Perhaps more importantly, programming has developed to not only assist those in residence, but provide services to additional populations. Our first program for new clients was established in 1998 with the start of NonSecure Detention, which now operates from the original Dunlap building. Our community-based programs followed, including delinquency prevention, foster care, and casework services for special populations. We have come to help not only children, but adults and families, providing our own services and tapping into community support networks that help our clients achieve goals and avoid out-of-home placement for children and the excessive use of crisis services for adults.
Our commitment to children includes providing new opportunities for their growth and success. In September 2008 we launched an Advantage Afterschool Program in partnership with the Indian River Central School District.
Today, the Home “fairly begun” in 1859 continues to evolve and serve the community’s most vulnerable populations, in pursuit of our mission: creating opportunities to enhance lives—one relationship at a time.