In Our Care: "Annie Wittenmeyer Home"

Ray Stewart of WOI-TV Ames, Iowa along with Iowa State University, produced "In Our Care," a 13 week series of documentaries filmed inside Iowa's state institutions. The series won the 1952 National Sylvania Television Award for Production Excellence.

(Voiceover) You're comfortable now. You feel well situated. It's nice to be home from a hard day's work with your family about you, shut off from the world. That is, shut off until you pick up the newspaper and the headlines bring in the world again. Maybe it's just a simple headline like this, Orphans' Home sets graduation May 23. Orphanage.

(Voiceover) Just a story about a home for kids. But the word interests you because, after all, your child under other circumstances might not be in your living room. He might be in an orphanage. "Suppose one of them was mine?" you think. "Suppose my child was in that orphanage. Of course, he's not, but he could be. Yes, it might be Jimmy, it is possible."

Ray Stewart: Yes, it is possible. And it's something to think about. Of course, we can never really know what it's like in an orphanage, but I think perhaps we can come closer to the truth if we examine the Davenport Home for Children, the Iowa Annie Wittenmeyer Home. Now, this home is located in Davenport in the northeast corner of town near Duck Creek.

Ray Stewart: Its large campus includes over 300 acres. This was once the Civil War Army Training Camp. But when the war was over, several women in Davenport petitioned Congress to give this camp to the state of Iowa as a home for soldiers' orphans. Annie Wittenmeyer was the Davenport nurse who by her leadership helped secure Camp Kinsman for the orphans. Today, these one-time barracks are cottages filled with children instead of soldiers.

Ray Stewart: The man in whose care we place these children is Mr. Leon Lyle, superintendent for the home. Mr. Lyle, are these cottages filled with orphans now?

Leon Lyle: There are a lot of children in the cottages, but they're not all orphans. They come there for a good many different reasons, divorce, separation, desertion, or illness of the parents.

Ray Stewart: And I see that all these children aren't here for long periods of time. I always thought of them as being there until they were 21 or something like that.

Leon Lyle: Oh, no. They don't stay forever and ever. They stay for a very short time sometimes, and sometimes they stay for a longer time.

Ray Stewart: Well, if they come in like that then, what are the ages of these children?

Leon Lyle: Well, they come in sometimes as babies, and then they come in six, seven, or eight, nine, ten, or eleven. And a great many of them are older children, ten and fourteen and sixteen.

Ray Stewart: With such a range of ages, I wonder what you do about education. What about the three Rs, reading, writing, and arithmetic?

Leon Lyle: Well, we start with the preschool. We have children three to four in the preschool, and then we have a regular school from kindergarten up through the 9th grade. Then the other children who are older and go to high school, they go downtown to the Davenport High School.

Ray Stewart:Oh, I see. They go to the regular Davenport High School then for, to complete their education. Then you are able to take care of that entire age range in that way. Now with so many varied energies and so many children there, what do about recreation?

Leon Lyle: We have to think hard to keep them busy, but we have the regular school program of football and baseball and basketball for both the boys and the girls, and swimming pool and gym. And we have organized groups like the YMCA group and the Brownies and the Girl Scouts. These groups are taken care of by volunteers that come in and help us.

Ray Stewart: I see. Now, I think of my own children and they appreciate spending money and it's sort of figured in as part of their lives. At your home, what do you do about spending money?

Leon Lyle: Well, you know, a little while ago, some of the children didn't have any money to spend at all. And then we decided to do something about that. So we gave each of them an allowance. It's based on age and the amount varies according to age, and that gives the children experience in managing money because, after all, that's pretty important, you know.

Ray Stewart: I think that would be a very good training, Mr. Lyle. And speaking of management, we'll get into a little business with your institution. How much does it cost to care for these children?

Leon Lyle: It costs about $92 a month now and that is about $1100 a year.

Ray Stewart: Ninety-two dollars a month for each child?

Leon Lyle: Yes.

Ray Stewart: Why, I believe you can send a child to college for that amount. It seems like $1200 is about that.

Leon Lyle: That's right. I read something about that the other day. It costs about that much for one year in college.

Ray Stewart: Well, with such an expensive program, how long do these children stay?

Leon Lyle: Well, the time varies. Some child might stay just a month. And some child might stay three years or sometimes they stay longer than that, eight or nine years. It depends on their individual situation.

Ray Stewart: With such a variation of times and everything there, how do you… Can you ever get to know them as individuals or are they just a bunch of 300 children?

Leon Lyle: Oh no, we have to know them as individuals. We have to make plans for each and every child because that's the most important thing. They are people, you know, and we have to figure things out according to the needs of each child.

Ray Stewart: I think it would be a little bit simpler to be in the living room with just one child. Thank you, Mr. Lyle, for helping us to understand more about your problems in the home. Mr. Lyle mentioned two problems. One, the problem of institutional care and the other the problem of placement. Now although you sometimes might want to adopt one or two of your children out sometimes in a trying moment, I think you realize that they stay with you and you have to help them train and get ready to be wage earners and homemakers and so forth. That is Mr. Lyle's job, too. And although he has 330 children instead of just one.

Ray Stewart: Mr. Lyle mentioned the varied ages in his children at the home. And when we were visiting in Davenport, we were attracted by a story book type preschool building. Like other three and four year-olds, these children are active and energetic. The older ones help care for the younger ones, the same as in your family or mine. These are only a few of the 200 boys and 130 girls of varied ages in the home, real living and breathing children, with feelings and frustrations, likes and dislikes, with emotions and energies - individual personalities with individual actions and individual reactions. People, just like you and me.

Ray Stewart: Now after preschool, these little girls are big enough to be Brownies, little Girl Scouts And like your Brownies, these girls like to work and play with clay. Here they watch the volunteer worker make a boat. And better yet, she puts a man in the boat. After all, what good is a boat without a man? Like your Brownies, these are curious and interested.

Ray Stewart: And these children like to sing. They like to sing the little songs that all children like to sing.

Ray Stewart: After a while, you grow up to become a teenager, and the YWCA encourages you to join a Y team group like this. They're singing, if you can read the words, Do your ears hang low; do they wobble to and fro? Can you tie them in a knot, can you tie them in a bow? Can you throw them over your shoulder like a Continental soldier? Do your ears hang low? A very enlightening song.

Ray Stewart: Y teens include also craft work under the leadership of capable workers.

Ray Stewart: Now the Annie Wittenmeyer Home includes children of all ages and sizes, children just like yours and mine, only more of them. And these children must be trained in schools. Well, the home has a school especially for these children right on the campus.

Ray Stewart: Each grade has its opening exercises and boys like Bill pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, and so forth.

Ray Stewart: Children are taught certain vocational skills. Boys learn to use the band saw and other power tools. These boys are making toy cabinets for the children's cottages, learning and helping at the same time. In the bakery, they learn the baker's trade, how to bake cookies, buns, breads, and all kinds of good things. This is a bread slicer.

Ray Stewart: The girls take sewing. They keep their own materials on special places in the cupboard. They sew dresses for the younger children, as well as for themselves. There are lots of things to do because there are lots of children here. There are lots of details to be cared for and lots of seams to be worked as these children learn to sew.

Ray Stewart: You know, when I was visiting the Annie Wittenmeyer Home, I saw something I thought was especially nice. As a matter of fact, I would like to have it here right now, and they call it the rocking chair corner. The rocking chair corner was something, in Mrs. Kenzer's sixth-grade room. And each day, one of her children had a chance to spend an hour in this special corner of her room, in a rocking chair, browsing through the books. What a wonderful way to spend the day.

Ray Stewart: These children also get a musical education. Ray Koops, band director, helps Dan with his saxophone and Donald is learning the rhythm of the drums. I find that Richard prefers the trumpet. John is seriously interested in the clarinet here. And if you think it's easy, just try it sometime. If you think it's easy, just watch John.

Ray Stewart: The girls practice the chorus regularly for their part in the religious services held in the chapel each Sunday. That's Ann there, one of the sopranos in the chorus. Mrs. Ernie is the director.

Ray Stewart: The boys and girls in the Annie Wittenmeyer Home keep busy like your boys and girls, learning how to sew or to carpenter, how to play a musical instrument or to sing. Ben, whom you saw taking a music lesson and Ann, who is here, who is the soprano, are here with me tonight.

Ray Stewart: Tell me, Dan, why did you take up the saxophone?

Dan: Well, I always wanted to be in the band and I saw a girl playing one time in the junior band and got interested in the tone of the instrument.

Ray Stewart: Oh, I see, it was the tone of the saxophone and nothing else that anything to do with… Are you doing anything with your music now?

Dan: Well, I play in a band in Davenport High School, we're in marching band and concert band We play down there.

Ray Stewart: Well, I can see that school will take care of a large part of your time, but how do you spend your time otherwise?

Dan: Well, before school, I work in the front rooms doing little chores, cleaning up and stuff. And then after school, I work down in the dairy I want to farm. We make ice cream bars and such.

Ray Stewart: Oh, I see. That sounds like a good job, ice cream. What do you plan to do when you finish high school, Dan?

Dan: Well, I hope to go to Augustana College. That's a Lutheran college over in Rock Island. My brother's over there is one reason why I'm going and also find out what I wish to do over there.

Ray Stewart: I see. How to get to school there? Do you ride the city buses?

Dan: No, we have a regular home bus that we go on. There are about 13 of us.

Ray Stewart: I see.

Dan: I believe there's three of them, isn't there Ann, that are seniors that will be graduating this year.

Ann: Yes, I agree.

Ray Stewart: Well, tell me, Ann, we saw you singing in the chorus. And, incidentally, we want to have you sing for us in a few moments. But how did you get started singing?

Ann: Well, about eight years ago, I went to choir that morning and there was only eight girls there and our leader wasn't there. So I decided I had to sing out, and ever since then, I've been singing.

Ray Stewart: Do you plan to do anything more with it? What are your interests now?

Ann: Well, I want to become a dress designer. However, if I fail in dress designing, I will take up singing.

Ray Stewart: Oh, I'm sure you won't fail in dress design, but we'll listen to your singing after while and then tell you after the show. How will that be? You've told me what your ambition is. What do you do with your time, when you are… not in school, or not painting pictures or whatever it is you do?

Ann: Well, I like to sketch pictures of dresses and paint a little bit at home. And then during the summertime, I like to swim.

Ray Stewart: Swimming is a good recreational sport and recreation is very important to the lives of any young people. Children everywhere, big and little, need recreation, need to play games and get exercise.

Ray Stewart: In the gym at the Annie Wittenmeyer Home, the boys play basketball. And like all interested boys, they take practice seriously. The girls are not to be outdone, and they take their turn at the basket, too. Some of these girls are surprisingly accurate. They can even hit the backboard. Softball is another sport at the home, for girls as well as for boys. Watch that swing. But only boys engage in this manly art, and watch that left hook. He's down. I don't think he's going to be down for long.

Ray Stewart: In the recreation hall, the boys' recreation hall, there is a roller-skating rink and these boys and girls are pretty adept at the art. Some of them can even skate backwards. Younger children enjoy swings and the merry go rounds on the playground and have lots and lots of fun. But after a good day, everyone likes to go to the canteen and spend that allowance Mr. Lyle told you about. On Fridays, a professional dance team teaches the teenagers ballroom dancing. These lessons are a part of the weekly dance. Good dancers too. If the children can do as well, they'll have a good dance out there.

Ray Stewart: Sometimes these boys and girls get a special treat like going on the school bus to the Davenport Art Gallery to see some Grandma Moses paintings, and here comes the inevitable last minute Johnny, but he made it.

Ray Stewart: I found that here in Davenport, as in many institutions in the state, the volunteer workers were doing a very important job to bring joy and comfort to the children in the home. We cannot overemphasize the work that these volunteers are doing. Here the American Legion Ladies in Blue come regularly to the home to take the little ones outdoors to play and swing. It was cold this day and there were mittens and snow suits to be put on.

Ray Stewart: These ladies in blue and sometimes other volunteer workers, depending on the day and the place, all of these volunteer workers give these homeless children the sort of thing your children have every day, and that is a bit of motherly love and attention. This is an ingredient in child building which our institutions cannot otherwise give. It is important that when a child cries, they get a little comfort and assurance from someone like a mother. These and other volunteer workers are willing and ready to give not only their hours but something of their hearts, which the children need. And children will be unhappy when you take them out of the swings. That's a brave little girl if I ever saw one.

Ray Stewart: Now it's time to eat. With such a large family, cafeteria style seems to be the best arrangement. That looks like macaroni and cheese with cabbage salad. Enough for over 300 hungry boys and girls who may want to come back for seconds. Three times a day, this dining room is a busy place, feeding growing children.

Ray Stewart: After supper, the children play or study in their cottages. They have lots of toys. Miss Hazel Smock head matron, watches the erection of a miniature farm, while we see Eric taking a trot on the rocking horse. Mrs. Brenham, cottage mother, reads to the boys in cottage four. Some nice bedtime story to finish off a good day.

Ray Stewart: And pretty soon it's time to go to bed. The boys undress beside their lockers and hang up their clothes to be ready for the next morning. The one bit of privacy they have, their lockers. And you'll notice that the washroom is a busy place. And soap and water seem to mix all right here. How's that for a pair of ears? The toothbrush gets a workout, too.

Ray Stewart: And soon these little fellas are ready to go upstairs to bed. The house mother leads the way. That really isn't much mother to go around, is it? Even the dormitory is a busy place, so many little boys to get into so many little beds. There's pajamas to put on, and a prayer, the beds turned down, and then in they go. Unfortunately, everyone is not able to be tucked in because, as we said before, there isn't enough mother to go around here.

Ray Stewart: We've been looking in on the Annie Wittenmeyer Home to see how these children live and how they are cared for. Some of these children, as a matter of fact about half of them, remain in the home from three to nine years. And about half of them remain between one month and three years. Those who do not stay here long are those who are adopted or placed out or those who return home. The business of adoption is a complicated one, and each child must be studied and observed carefully before being placed in a home.

Ray Stewart: Here Dr. Birham examines a baby in a routine investigation. The doctor comes out to the home twice a week and is always on call. The babies have their own special problems. Jerry is deaf but is otherwise all right. It looks as if John has been eating his oatmeal. Not much wrong with Catharine here, who is being helped by one of the older girls in the home. All of the babies are not bright and cheerful. There's Jerry again. This little Mexican boy seems to wish he had some company. He looks like a healthy lad. And here's a bouncing boy. All I can say is that Jerry sure likes that horse.

Ray Stewart: When these children are old enough, they are given psychological tests so that the staff members of the home may know what kind of training each child needs. Here psychologist James Taylor is giving an examination to one of the children. One of his techniques is to set up the blocks that you see here before the child and then have the child to duplicate the same thing.

Ray Stewart: By observation then, Mr. Taylor can tell whether or not this child needs any attention and what kind of attention. Of course, this is only one of the many techniques that a psychologist uses.

Ray Stewart: Now, Mrs. Palmer, who is the Director of the Children's Division of the Board of Control, is here with me tonight, and I have a question. In the paper today, Mrs. Palmer, I noticed a release from Des Moines which said that less than one-fourth of the 330 children living in the Annie Wittenmeyer Home in Davenport will find new parents this year because, despite the overwhelming adoption applications, well I crossed it out. But anyway, you tell me how it is that with so many applications, we don't place more children.

Mrs. Palmer: Well, many of those children, of course, are not available for adoptive placement, Mr. Stewart.

Ray Stewart: Why is that?

Mrs. Palmer: Well, many of them have not legally been released to us. We do not have their custody. Some of the children are not emotionally ready for adoptive placement. You have mixed racial backgrounds.

Ray Stewart: I noticed here too. We had some Mexican children and a little colored child and so forth, is that a problem in placement too?

Mrs. Palmer: No, we have placed many of those children. We have very fine homes and those children have gone into the homes.

Ray Stewart: Well, let me ask you this. Supposing I wanted to get a child out of the home, how much chance would I have?

Mrs. Palmer: You overwhelm me. You understand, of course, that we have approximately 400 applications. We place approximately 100 children each year for adoptive placement. They go into adoptive homes. The waiting period seems long but it's very necessary to make a very complete investigation of the adoptive parents, study their homes, visit them in the homes, know their standing in the community. And we must have a backlog of applications too to work with because it's important to have the right home for the child.

Ray Stewart: Oh, I see, then when you get an application in, you put it on file, and then when you have a child ready for placement, do you look through the applications

Mrs. Palmer: Yes, and then the home must fit the child, nationality, educational background, and then, of course, the requirements that the parents, the adopting parents are expecting the specifications of the child.

Ray Stewart: You don't put your applications in pile and take off the first one.

Mrs. Palmer: Oh, no.

Ray Stewart: And then put the first child out that comes in

Mrs. Palmer: No, we don't want to do that.

Ray Stewart: Well, I couldn't drive down to Davenport Sunday, then, and see Mr. Lyle and get a child, could I?

Mrs. Palmer: No, the applications are processed through the state office in Des Moines, the Children's Division at the Board of Control.

Ray Stewart: So if anyone went to Mr. Lyle, they would just be sent right on

Mrs. Palmer: They would be referred to our office.

Ray Stewart: Right to your office.

Mrs. Palmer: Um hum.

Ray Stewart: Well, how many children did you say you place?

Mrs. Palmer: Approximately 100 are placed in adoptive homes each year.

Ray Stewart: Well, I noticed in this film here, we had 330 children in this home and I also… What's the matter with them?

Mrs. Palmer: Well, of course, over half of those children who are placed are school age children. And you know, as Mr. Lyle said, our greatest population number of children the older age group.

Ray Stewart: Are they harder to place?

Mrs. Palmer: Much harder to place.

Ray Stewart: People want to come in and get …

Mrs. Palmer: They want the very tiny child, the young child.

Ray Stewart: So they can raise it themselves and that sort of thing. Well, I don't envy you your job, but how do like this type of work? Do you find it rewarding? I'd like to throw this in before you answer that and maybe it will color your answer a little bit, Mrs. Palmer, that I enjoyed very much seeing Mrs. Palmer work with these children when we went to Davenport and to Toledo, another home that we will take up on a future program. She has a wonderful way with children to prepare the way there by asking you do you like your work?

Mrs. Palmer: I love it. I enjoy it very much.

Ray Stewart: You must in order to do such a good job, and I think you're out on the road most of the time, aren't you, Mrs. Palmer?

Mrs. Palmer: Visiting the institutions very often

Ray Stewart: This investigation that you mentioned, do you do that of the homes?

Mrs. Palmer: No, we have field workers, the state agents. Girls who have their districts and are supervising the children placed in the homes and then making the investigation of the homes. Then those applications, the final process, is completed in our office.

Ray Stewart: Well, I…

Mrs. Palmer: It would be impossible for me to investigate 400 applications.

Ray Stewart: Yes, it would, and make adequate report on them. I began to get the picture of adoption now and I can see that your waiting period is necessary and that the psychological testing and so forth. Do you have anything to say about these children who are placed outside of recognized adoption agencies.

Mrs. Palmer: No, we do not make the investigations for the independent placements.

Ray Stewart: If people take children that way, then they can have no guarantee of anything as you give a guarantee, then, can they?

Mrs. Palmer: Well, the investigations are made by other agencies, but we feel that we have a great deal of responsibility with the number of children that we have. We have a far greater number of children and applications than many other agencies.

Ray Stewart: You do not place all properly adopted children, then. I mean… What I mean is there are private agencies.

Mrs. Palmer: Oh, yes, several

Ray Stewart: In addition to the state agencies and it gives a large choice. Do they handle themselves about the same way you do?

Mrs. Palmer: Oh, yes.

Ray Stewart: It's a standard procedure then.

Mrs. Palmer: Um Hm.

Ray Stewart: So we can't just because we go outside of the state say we can have a child any quicker or anything like that?

Mrs. Palmer: No, I think most of the agencies are facing the same difficulties that we are. I'd like to say right here that it's so very important that we know the background of our children and have adequate social histories and then the studies and surveys that are made during the time the children are in the institutions.

Ray Stewart: We simply can't be in a hurry about this thing can then can we?

Mrs. Palmer: No.

Ray Stewart: And I know that people are very anxious to get children and that's the thought we leave with. We can't be a hurry. So, you see how it is. Children coming and going in the Annie Wittenmeyer Home. And all of them have to be fed and clothed and schooled and observed and tested. And they can be children just like yours. For instance, take Ann. But let's Ann speak for herself or rather sing for herself. We're going to let Ann close the program by singing May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You, Ann.

Ann: May the good Lord bless and keep you whether near or far away. May you find that long awaited golden day today. May your troubles all be small ones, and your fortune ten times ten. May the Good Lord bless and keep you 'til we meet again. May you walk with sunlight shining with a bluebird in every tree. May there be a silver lining back of every cloud you see. Fill your dreams with sweet tomorrow, never mind what might have been. May the good Lord bless and keep you 'til we meet again.