To Know Where You Are Going, You Must Know Where You’ve Come From…

In 2015, we celebrated 119  years of service to children and families in West Virginia. The Children’s Home Society of West Virginia looks back at the children and adults of yesterday. They formed the needs, activities and programs that have given us the tradition of service to children and families that we follow today and strive to continue into tomorrow. Take a moment to journey back with us…

On Saturday, April 19, 1896 the Reverend D.W. Comstock, a retired minister and former Superintendent of the Children’s Home Society of Arkansas arrived in Huntington, WV.

Representing the National Children’s Home Association, Rev. Comstock came to West Virginia to form a Children’s Home Society similar to those he had formed in the Midwest.

Working primarily through church congregations, Rev. Comstock recruited the charter members of the Society. On May 4, 1896, the State of West Virginia issued a certificate of Incorporation in the name of The Children’s Home Society of West Virginia for “the purpose of finding homes for homeless and dependent children”. And the work began.

Traveling by rail, Rev. Comstock gathered up West Virginia’s homeless children, finding them homes, raising money and promoting the work of the Society. In 1898, with the formation of a statewide Board of Directors, Governor G.W. Atkinson was elected as the Society’s first President.

In January 1900, the West Virginia Legislature passed a law allowing county courts to pass their wards to the Society for placement “in good families as sons and daughters…” This law created the need for a “waiting home” for children in the care of the Society. U.S. Senator Henry Gassaway Davis met this need with a gift of $10,000 for the purchase of the Botkin property at 1118 Washington Street in Charleston. This property became the Davis Child Shelter. Senator Davis remained a friend and benefactor of the shelter throughout his life, and the Society continues to receive operating funds from his estate today.

The Davis Child Shelter was the only home of its kind in the state and described itself as a home-finding institution rather than an orphanage. While the Davis Child Shelter was originally planned as a home for the superintendent, his assistants and four to eight waiting children, the influenza epidemics in the early 1900’s and the depression years caused the capacity of the shelter to grow to 110.

To provide temporary relief during hot summer months, the Society purchased land on Little Sandy Creek in 1932. This property offered summer camp experiences for shelter children as well as providing fresh produce until its sale in 1961. It was known as Summer Camp,Camp Farm, Boys’ Farm and Fresh Air Camp at various times. From 1943 to 1950, the camp served as a year-round residential facility for
 pre-delinquent boys.

In 1950, the Society outlined three distinct services to be offered statewide:

Emergency Shelter Care
Specialized Care and Treatment for Emotionally Disturbed Children

Shorty afterward, new state licensing requirements caused the Board to recognize that the more than 60-year old shelter facility could no longer provide suitable care for children. Over the next several years special efforts was made to reunite school age children with their own families or to provide placement in an adoptive or foster home. By 1961, no children were in care at the Davis facility, and by 1964, the shelter building had been demolished, the property leased for commercial use and the Society’s offices moved to 1118 Kanawha Boulevard where they were to remain for 25 years. By 1970, over 4,000 children had been placed for adoption by the Society and over 16,500 children had received shelter care and other services.

Changing social trends in the 70’s such as increased availability of birth control and abortion services along with a decreasing number of birth parents choosing to place their infants for adoption resulted in the agency’s drive to give particular emphasis to the adoptive placement of special needs children. In 1980, the Society contracted with the State Department of Human Services to operate the West Virginia Adoption Exchange, a program designed to provide a wide range of exposure for special needs children and the families able to adopt.

The Adoption Exchange contract followed the 1978 rebirth of the Davis Child Shelter as an emergency shelter for abused, neglected and dependent children in Kanawha County. The shelter was located in the former convent at Blessed Sacrament Church in South Charleston and was funded by the Department of Human Services.

The passage of H.B. 1010 during the 1982 Session of the West Virginia Legislature mandated the creation of additional emergency shelters around the state. The Society had opened emergency shelters in Romney, Northfork (the Paul Miller Home), Martinsburg, Beckley (the Cherry Hill Shelter) and Huntington by early 1983. During this development period, the population of the shelters was undergoing change and now included children with severe emotional problems and youth in crisis.

Later in 1983, the Society added a highly specialized child protective services unit to its list of programs. This unit provided services to all residents of Orchard Manor and Littlepage Terrace Public Housing Projects operated by Charleston Housing Authority and provided a full range of services for neglected and abused children and their families.

By 1987, the Society added the Southern West Virginia Child Abuse and Neglect Volunteer Project, changing the name to WE CAN (Working to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect). The project recruits, trains, and places volunteers to assist child protective services workers in directly helping families who may be at risk of abuse and neglect.

Following two years of self-study in September 1991, the Society received full accreditation of all sites and programs from the Council on Accreditation of Services for Families and Children. COA is the largest independent, nationally recognized accrediting body for agencies providing mental health and social services to families, children and individuals in the United States and Canada. The Society has renewed and maintained its accreditation several times.

During the early 90’s the Society expanded services through: operation of additional emergency shelters-the Arthur N. Gustke Child Shelter (1992) in Parkersburg and the Lewisburg Shelter (1993); the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) Program (1993) in Kanawha County  which trained community volunteers to speak up for abused, neglected and dependent children in court; and the completion of a $990,000 land acquisition and construction project (1995) resulting in modern housing for the Davis Child Shelter and the Charleston Home-Based Services Unit. The Society worked to add two additional shelters in Logan and Nicholas Counties in 1999. The A.N. Gustke Shelter in Parkersburg moved into a newly renovated facility in 2004 and the Huntington shelter at Ona was rededicated in 2006 as the Hovah Hall Underwood Children’s Shelter.

Additional programs activities extend into foster care, outreach, family visitation, respite, prenatal and early childhood services, parenting skills training, community based social work, and truancy diversion services.  

Today the Society has 14 locations,  10 Emergency Child Shelters, statewide Adoption and Foster care programs as well as a statewide volunteer and mentoring programs and 15 other family support and intervention programs. 

Last year, Children’s Home Society helped over 13,000 children and their families throughout the state. Board members, volunteers and staff of the organization continue to celebrate its century-old tradition of service to West Virginia’s children and families and to rededicate themselves to the Society’s mission to promote the wellbeing of children.



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