We Celebrate Clara Spence

“Throughout our Nation’s history, American women have led movements for social and economic justice, made groundbreaking scientific discoveries, enriched our culture with stunning works of art and literature, and charted bold directions in our foreign policy.”

In 2009, Martha Ulman, Clara Spence’s grand-daughter, wrote an article for the New York State Historical Association chronicling the history of her grandmother’s achievements as a pioneer in adoption in New York. We can think of no better way to acknowledge the women who shaped social justice than to honor our own founder and adoption advocate Clara Spence. This is an excerpt from Martha Ulman’s article:

Clara_Spence resizedClara Spence achieved her work during the pivotal decades 1900-1920, when there were many people with socially progressive ideas. Some approached the problem of the discrepancy between the rich and the poor from the bottom up. They personally went into the slums and worked with the problem firsthand. Clara Spence chose to approach the problem from the top by preaching to the children of the richest New Yorkers the moral and ethical virtue of service so that they, in their adult life, would make a difference in improving the conditions of those less fortunate. Although many of her students went own to serve in their communities, the area for which they are best known is that of adoption and the creation of their nursery, which merged with that of Henry and Alice Chapin in 1943. Known today as Spence-Chapin Services to Families and Children, the organization continues to serve the needs of children of all creeds, colors, and nationalities.

Born in Albany, New York, in 1859, Clara Spence was a member of the middle class. She graduated from Boston University’s School of Oratory in 1879, after which she attended London University where she honed her acting skills. She came to New York City originally aspiring to be an actress but, upon the death of her mother in 1883, she shifted her talents to teaching at private schools for girls. In 1892, she founded her own school in a brownstone at 6 West Forty-Eighth Street. It was in this school that Clara Spence began a nursery for abandoned babies.

The treatment of orphans before the 1890’s followed a dreary route from institutional care to indentured service or, in the case of thousands of children in Charles Loring Brace’s orphan trains, relocation to families hundreds of miles from their homes. There, as Marilyn Holt notes in her book, “The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America”, they were often valued for their labor potential rather than accepted as members of the family. Clara Spence offered adoption as an alternative to institutionalization or relocation. Adoption, which we now take for granted, was an anomaly at a time when to adopt a non-relative was consider a brave and bizarre act, because of genetic uncertainty and social stigma. Clara Spence dedicated herself to the cause of abandoned infants and introduced her students to adoption as a new and fulfilling form of social work.

In January 1909, the White House Conference on Dependent Children adopted fourteen resolutions all aimed at replacing the institutional method of child care with home care. The next month Clara Spence personally adopted a one-year-old girl from the Children’s Aid Society. The judge had no objection to her application even though she was a single parent nearing the age of fifty. Six years later in 1915, Clara Spence adopted a little boy. Her partner, Charlotte Baker, adopted a girl in 1911 and a boy in 1914, completing what was one of the first single-sex adoption families.
Clara Spence - Central Park, February 1911

It was Ms. Spence’s personal involvement that inspired her students, who witnessed the transformation of babies who came from institutions and were “built up” for adoption on the top floor of her school. As a result, in 1915, the alumnae of the school opened the Spence Alumnae Society nursery through which several hundred babies were placed in adoptive homes. In 1921, Clara Spence brought thirteen children from Great Britain to the United States to be adopted into American families, anticipating what has today become a vast network of international adoption. By her willingness to defy public opinion and risk social ostracism, Clara Spence not only managed to make adoption an accepted practice, but one that became the method of choice for hundreds of families. It was largely because of her work and influence that New York became recognized as a leader in child welfare and adoption in particular.

Spence-Chapin has spent over 100 years finding innovative ways to fulfill Clara Spence’s legacy. Our expertise has consistently expanded the benefits of adoption to more children and the prospective parents who want to love them.

Just as Clara Spence responded to the need in her time, our work is focused on serving women and families who need help planning and building strong, loving families. We are driven by the simple and fundamental belief: every child deserves a family. Through our Modern Family Center, we provide counseling and community services that help these new families succeed. We can create more permanent, loving families just as we’ve always done.

Family Profile: The Hoffmans

Bobby, Lucy and GehrigBobby Hoffman learned the value of family at an early age. “My father left when I was 15, but he was gone long before he actually announced his departure,” Bobby explains. As the third oldest of nine children, Bobby was tasked with the enormous responsibility of helping his mother raise his siblings.

Bobby went on to marry Lynn and have a son named Ryan. Lynn unfortunately succumbed to breast cancer when Ryan was just 12 years old. After some time had passed, Bobby later remarried and settled into a life with Kelly, who never had any children and was now the step-mother to his almost adult son.

Just when Bobby thought he was finished rearing children, he realized his best moments had been with children and he wanted to raise another child, specifically a child born in New York City in need of a home. Bobby explains, “I wanted my wife and I to share all the love that we had within our hearts and to give a child a caring, stable home”. With that in mind, the couple turned to Spence-Chapin and a short while later, we able to adopt baby Gehrig.

Linda, the social worker on the case, reflects, “Bobby and Kelly immediately fell in love with Gehrig upon meeting him. It was a profoundly emotional moment and was very, very sweet.” Linda recalls the Hoffmans being on cloud nine about the newest addition to their family, catering fully to Gehrig’s every need.

Tragically, the high unexpectedly became a low when Kelly passed away from a heart attack just before Gehrig’s 2nd birthday. Facing single parenthood for the second time, Bobby drew upon the strength he learned from his mother so early in life and hunkered down to raise his son.

Oftentimes out of tragedy, comes resiliency. The Hoffman FamilyGehrig is now seven and is flourishing due to the love and support of his blended family unit – Bobby, step mom Lucy, Kelly’s mother, and Lucy’s mother. Gehrig is aware of the deep courage his birth mother had in placing him for adoption and is constantly reminded of the boundless love and devotion Kelly had for him. “He knows life is good, even if it is sometimes short with many obstacles,” Bobby says.

The Hoffman family stays connected to Spence-Chapin by attending annual events such as Global Gathering and the Family Picnic. Bobby is also able to give back in a special way – through tribute giving. Instead of gifts on Gehrig’s birthdays, he encourages family and friends to donate to Spence-Chapin in honor of Gehrig. He also takes his commitment a step further by giving to the organization in honor of Gehrig’s friends’ birthdays. Bobby’s generous gifts and championing of Spence-Chapin’s mission help to provide children with a loving, permanent home such as the one he has been able to give Gehrig.


In Remembrance of Flicka Van Praagh

flicka 3Spence-Chapin offers its heartfelt remembrance of the life and spirit of Flicka Van Praagh.  Flicka had served as the agency’s Director of the International Adoption Department from 1992-2004, having first joined the organization in 1958.

With an early interest in adoption, Flicka chose to come to Spence-Chapin for her student placement, a requisite for her MSW from Columbia University, and was offered a position after graduation. She started as a case worker in foster care in 1958 and was department head from 1961 to 1964 when she left to become Director of Social Services at Woman’s Hospital, a division of St. Luke’s Hospital Center. There she met her husband and they became the parents of a daughter and two sons. She returned to the agency in the early 1970’s on a part-time basis doing intakes and home studies that could be completed while her children were in school. She eventually came back full-time working in the international department.

Flicka made the first of many trips around the world in 1975, traveling to Seoul, Korea to implement the founding of Spence-Chapin’s first international program. She traveled extensively in Latin America in the 1980’s, working to establish programs in Chile, El Salvador, Paraguay, Peru, Colombia and Guatemala.

In 1992, Flicka became the director of the international department. She said, “In joining Spence-Chapin, I was able to see the world and visit so many wonderful places. I went to twelve countries trying to set up new programs; opening Russia, China, Moldova and Bulgaria. I found it thrilling to help waiting children from all around the world find their forever families.”

Understanding the critical impact that physical and emotional contact has during a child’s early stages of development, Flicka had the vision to establish Spence-Chapin’s first Granny Program in Bulgaria in 1998. This program’s success saw its replication in China, Moldova, Colombia and South Africa.

Flicka was loved by the many families that she helped bring together. In the New York Times online Guestbook Marth Volcker wrote, “Flicka was a wonderful person, and I am forever grateful to her for the important role she played in the adoption of our daughter. We adopted our daughter from China in 1999, and Flicka was a wonderful guide through the complete adoption process. We saw Flicka about a year and a half ago at a Spence-Chapin function, and her ability to remember and her interest in all the children she had placed in forever families was amazing.”

“We, the parents of two of the ‘in excess of 500 children’ Flicka helped place in adoption while at Spence-Chapin, would like to express our condolences to her family as well as our thanks, once again, to Flicka for guiding us through the 14 months that led up to the arrival of our then six-month and now 32 year old twin daughters, Jessie and Corey. Her spirit lives on in all of us,” wrote Jon Silbert and Bonnie McHale.

The Meo family added, “We are forever grateful and blessed to be parents because of Flicka. We were part of her last group to China. She was an amazing woman. May she rest in peace knowing the love and joy she brought to so many.”

At her retirement party in 2004, Flicka said. “In all the years that I worked with Spence-Chapin, I always carried a case load in addition to my other responsibilities because of the great pleasure and joy in working with clients and seeing them turn into families.”

For Ann Hassan, our current Director of Adoption, Flicka was more than a humanitarian. Flicka“To me, Flicka was a mentor, advisor and friend. As a young worker I idolized her, and she in turn invested in me, encouraged me and molded me into the social worker I am today. She combined grace and confidence in a way that made her a superb leader and a truly unique and special woman. She had true affection and commitment for the hundreds of families she worked with over the years, stemming I think from the immense love and pride she had for her own family and a core belief that everyone deserves to experience that kind of love. Flicka guides me in my work, and in life, and will forever live on through me and my many colleagues who learned from her for so many years.”

As parents and child welfare professionals, many of us are inspired by her work and her legacy.  As we reflect on her achievements, we struggle to find the balance of a tribute and a call to action – not to just mourn Flicka, but to learn from Flicka and continue her work. In doing so, we could elevate our focus of our common goal – that every child deserves a family.

If you would like to make a donation to continue Flicka’s work, we would welcome a tribute gift in her honor or call Mary Connolly, 212-360-0204.


You can read our remembrance to Flicka online at the NY Times.