CHILDREN 1ST was formerly known as the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RSSPCC); an organisation dating back to the late 19th century, the age of Victorian Philanthropy and greatly rising social awareness. The catalyst for the Society’s original establishment was the visit of a Glasgow accountant named James Grahame to New York City in 1884, where he witnessed the work of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The NYSPCC was founded in 1875 through the case of a young girl named Mary Ellen, who was severely abused by her adoptive mother. A local church worker learned of Mary Ellen’s plight and urged authorities to help the child, only to find that they were legally powerless to intervene. The worker then turned to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who recognised Mary Ellen as “an animal of human species”, and successfully removed her from her mother. The case highlighted the urgent need for a child protection agency, and thus the NYSPCC was founded.
Inspired by what he saw, Grahame returned to Glasgow and almost immediately set about forming what would become the origins of CHILDREN 1ST. On 23 July, 1884 he convened a public meeting in the Religious Institution Rooms on Buchanan Street, where he discussed the work being done by the NYSPCC and similar societies in London and Liverpool, and convinced the audience of a dire need for a similar society in Glasgow; thus, the Glasgow Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was born. In 1889 the organisation amalgamated with the Edinburgh and Leith Children’s Aid and Refuge Society to form the Scottish National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SNSPCC).
Initially the Society operated primarily in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but in the 1890’s additional branches began to open throughout Scotland. It was highly pro-active in its approach to child protection, and employed Inspectors who investigated instances of child neglect or abuse and took immediate action. These often involved removing children to a “place of safety”; the Society operated several shelters which provided temporary refuge to children who required urgent care, and upon arrival they were immediately bathed, clothed and fed (in areas not served by a Society shelter, children were sent to a similar institutions). Meanwhile the Inspector interviewed the child’s guardians, and if the case was not deemed too serious, the guardians received a warning and the children were returned, while the family remained under the supervision of the Inspector. In more serious instances the Society referred cases to the legal authorities, and prosecutions for neglect, exposure, violence, etc. occurred. Securing prosecutions was made easier in 1889 when the first Act of Parliament to protect children, known as the “Children’s Charter”, was passed; the Society itself played an important lobbying role in the establishment of this Act and subsequent children’s legislation. Despite taking legal action when necessary, the Society strived to keep the responsibility of childcare with guardians, in order to keep families together. The Society’s Inspectors worked directly with guardians in the home to ensure that children were properly cared for, providing vital support and guidance. Only in severe and irrevocable circumstances were children permanently removed from the home, and placed in industrial schools or other situations.
The Society went through a number of name changes in its earlier years. In 1895 it affiliated with its English equivalent, and became officially known as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Scottish Branch. However, the relationship was short lived due to a disagreement over the distribution of legacy funds, and in 1907 the Society reverted back to the title of Scottish National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In 1922 the Society was granted a Royal Charter, and thus became the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
As a voluntary organisation, from the start, funding was a major concern for the Society. The first Ladies’ Committee was immediately established in 1884; this group of women volunteers collected donations directly from the public, and further committees were later created with the opening of additional branches throughout Scotland. Legacies also provided a substantial source of income.
1893 saw the formation of the Scottish Children’s League of Pity, the junior branch of the Society. The primary aim of the League was to interest Scotland’s more privileged children in the needs of their less fortunate peers and get them involved in the Society, while generally promoting the Society’s cause and raising additional funds. Members of the League’s numerous circles throughout Scotland secured donations of clothing, bedding, and food for the shelters; held bazaars, pageants, plays and balls to raise vital funds; and became directly involved in the Society’s work, visiting children in the shelters, finding employment situations for older girls, and providing other services. The League’s magazine titled City Sparrows could be purchased from booksellers, and discussed the work of the League and the Society.
The onset of the First World War brought difficult times for the Society. It lost a substantial number of Inspectors to military service (as well as the General Secretary), while at the same time need for the Society’s services grew. Soldiers’ wives struggled to cope with sole responsibility for the home and children while their husbands were away; of course, many never returned and such problems persisted after the war. The subsequent economic depression intensified existing social problems, and generated some financial difficulty for the Society. The Second World War once again saw the Society operating with reduced manpower and increased demand. Despite limitations, the Society continued to develop during these tumultuous years, expanding its lobbying and advocacy efforts while maintaining direct services. Work of the Society contributed to the passing of the Children and Young Persons Act in 1933, which established juvenile courts and tightened youth employment regulations. The Society sharpened its focus on preventive work, taking assertive and comprehensive measures to ensure the well-being of children. Alongside the development of the Welfare State, the Society increasingly collaborated with other bodies, including local authorities, medical health services, national welfare services, the courts, schools, and the police. The Society further strengthened its relationship with local authorities upon the passing of the Children’s Act, 1948, which established a children's department and a children's officer in each local authority.
In 1955 the Society first added Women Visitors to its services. The role of the Women Visitor was to enhance and continue the preventive work of the Inspector by providing practical training and guidance in household management, including budgeting, hygiene, childcare, cooking, and decoration. These women ensured that families received intensive support, and their services came to be well known and highly valued.
Local authorities continued to receive growing responsibility for child welfare throughout the 1960’s, compelling the Society to assess its role. The 1963 Children and Young Persons Act extended the power of local authorities to intervene with family situations; the Society responded by even closer collaboration with local authorities, providing consultations and placing Inspectors on case committees. The Social Work Scotland Act 1968 then ushered in a new social welfare era by establishing social work departments within local authorities, and introduced the Children’s Panel system. The Society continually adapted to keep in tune with these statutory bodies and ensure that services did not overlap; for example, in Glasgow the regional spheres of the Society’s branches were adjusted to fit with the local authority structure. The Society also responded to social work’s continued professionalisation by sending Inspectors and Women Visitors on Social Work Services Group courses.
While the Society continued to provide its core investigative and intervention work throughout the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, when social work departments were still establishing services, it greatly expanded its remit during this time. Innovative ventures included the New Settlement project, started in 1972 to give children the experience of developing a new community. Research became a significant focus with the opening of the Overnewton Centre in Glasgow in 1978. Until its closure in 1991, the Centre researched and developed standards of social work practice, first focusing on physical abuse and later adding sexual abuse.
By the 1990’s inspectorial services had been gradually phased out and the Society no longer operated residential shelters. Branch offices throughout Scotland which had served a base for Inspectors were replaced with Family Resource Centres run by professional social workers. No longer involved in the direct investigation of child abuse incidents, the Society instead provided extended childcare, prevention and protection services designed to meet the current and emerging needs of vulnerable families and children, including individual and family counselling, parenting skills groups, and post investigative assessments. In 1995 the Society adopted the name of CHILDREN 1ST to reflect the change in its role.
In the 21st century the organisation operates a wide range of children and family support services throughout Scotland. It also continues its active campaigning efforts through its Public Policy section. CHILDREN 1ST is mainly funded through corporate, trust and foundation gifts, as well as legacies.
In September 2005 CHILDREN 1st launched the first television campaign in the organisation’s history, aimed at making as many people as possible aware of its work and how they can help children in need. The campaign’s emblem was a young girl named Mairi - a reference to the story of Mary Ellen in New York and the organisation’s foundation – reflecting on more than a century of history.