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Kelso, John Joseph

Abstract and Keywords

John Joseph Kelso (March 31, 1864–September 30, 1935) was a young journalist when he became involved in child welfare in his adopted home of Toronto. He was instrumental in the passage of the first child protection legislation in Canada, and in spreading the need for voluntary children’s aid societies across Ontario and for similar legislation across Canada. He became superintendent of child welfare in 1893 and remained in that post for 40 years, shaping the development of the child welfare system in Ontario and Canada.

Keywords: child welfare, foster care, child protection, child neglect, Children’s Aid Society, adoption, children of unmarried parents

John Joseph Kelso was born in Dundalk, Ireland, on March 31, 1864. In 1870, his father, George, left for New York and found his way to Toronto, where in 1874 his family joined him. In the fall of 1885, after 11 years of a mix of schooling and temporary employment, including several years as an apprentice typesetter, he was hired as a journalist for the Toronto World newspaper. In February 1887, he spoke before a meeting of the Canadian Institute, to propose the establishment of a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals and children, an idea that came to him as a result of experiences he had during the previous year. Encouraged by the reception of his proposal, he called a meeting later in the month at which prominent members of Toronto society spoke. The meeting agreed to create the Toronto Humane Society with Mayor Howland as honorary president, Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor as a patron, and with many prominent citizens on the executive. Kelso was named honorary secretary. An office was opened, and the Society began work, initially in public education. It was Kelso who would handle much of the routine work of the society in its early years.

In May 1887, he accepted a position as police reporter with the more established Globe newspaper. At the same time he was becoming more involved with the Humane Society. In early 1888, the Society determined that its aims should be the protection of the children of drunken, cruel, or dissolute parents and the punishment of the latter. It should also promote the regulation of some street activities, the establishment of an industrial school for girls, a refuge for neglected or destitute children, and the hiring of an officer responsible for looking after the street children of the city. In February 1988, Kelso presented a draft of the Children’s Protection Act to the legislature. It would give the courts the authority to send neglected children to a home, give the home the power to keep children up to the age of 18, and it required the municipality to pay $2 a week toward their care. The bill passed the legislature in March 1888. During 1888, Kelso began an involvement with the Fresh Air Fund as its organizer, and as assistant secretary of the American Humane Society, he was involved in the organization of its conference in Toronto.

In a brief to the Royal Commission on the Prison and Reformatory System of Ontario, in November 1890, Kelso explained the view that would be the basis of his continuing work as a social reformer: The prevention of crime is the major purpose of social institutions, and the neglect of children is the major cause of child and adult crime. All possible steps should be taken to keep children from harmful moral and environmental influences. The Commission’s recommendations coincided with those of Kelso, including one supporting the formation of voluntary child welfare associations. In April 1891, he came out in favor of a Toronto Children’s Aid Society (CAS), resigning from the Humane Society. At a public meeting later that year, Mayor Howland was elected chairman, and Kelso president of the new Toronto Children’s Aid Society. Although Kelso resigned 8 months later, he remained active with the new Society; through its Legislation Committee, the Society lobbied for new child welfare legislation, an idea that was accepted by Premier Mowat. Before introducing the legislation in early 1893, Mowat appointed Kelso to the new position of superintendent of neglected children, under the terms of the revised Children’s Protection Act. The new Act made it possible for neglected children to come under the care of a CAS and for children to be placed in foster homes. Municipalities were responsible for the payment of support for foster children. The promotion, accreditation, and supervision of Children’s Aid Societies were made the responsibility of the superintendent.

In his new position as superintendent, Kelso focused on the promotion of Children’s Aid Societies. By 1914 there were societies across the province, and Kelso no longer had to be directly engaged in child welfare work. For Kelso, a key achievement of the societies was their voluntary, philanthropic, and Christian character. He strongly supported the fostering of children over institutional care and a complete break from the parents of origin. In 1897 Kelso was made responsible for juvenile immigration, preparing a report supporting the continued practice of sending poor children from Britain to Canada. Trips the next year to Winnipeg and Victoria in 1898 resulted in each province passing child protection laws based on Ontario.

Kelso became a proponent of youth courts and of the appointment of probation officers to work with youth convicted of crimes. Together with W. L. Scott of the Ottawa CAS, their campaign for new legislation led to the passage of the 1908 (Dominion) Juvenile Delinquents Act under which provinces could establish juvenile courts.

Along with other social reformers of the time, Kelso became a proponent of the abolition of slums. He was involved in the formation of the Toronto Playgrounds Association and of two settlement houses. He played a part in the formation of the University Settlement House, serving on the board for several years, but played a larger role in the Central Neighbourhood House, serving as the initial president but soon stepping aside and serving as vice president until 1916.

Kelso continued his Canadian travels, speaking in Nova Scotia in 1905; his visit led to the establishment of legislation in 1906. He spoke also in Saskatchewan in 1909, where shortly after, the legislature brought in child welfare legislation and consulted in the same year in Alberta, where the government was in the process of bringing in a child welfare law. In 1913 he travelled to Saint John, New Brunswick, where he again promoted child welfare legislation. A new law appeared in that province in the next year. Concern about the financing of his own office led Kelso to lobby the government in the company of representatives of 30 societies around the province. One outcome was the formation of an Association of Children’s Aid Societies in 1911.

Kelso regarded the passage of the Children of Unmarried Parents Act and the Adoption Act in 1921 as the last two pieces necessary for a modern child welfare system. He was appointed as administrator of the first of the two acts in June 1921. He was a firm believer that children born to unmarried mothers should be raised by them for the first year and then placed in a foster home. Kelso was also appointed provincial officer to administer the Adoption Act. By the mid-1920s, the work of the office and the pressures placed on him by the government meant that he had ceased to be a social reformer; instead, he was occupied by the demands of administration. He remained at his post until June 1934, when the new Liberal government asked him to retire. He was 70 years old. He died a little over a year later in September 1935.