Back in the Day: Caring for 'wards of the state'


Despite the greatest hopes and best laid plans, life doesn’t always follow the path one has laid. Sickness, unemployment, legal troubles, homelessness, addiction – these were all reasons why, for generations, young children went from residing with their families to becoming “wards of the state.”

The Children’s Home & School, as well as public and private orphanages around Rhode Island, regularly took in children whose parents had died, been hospitalized or incarcerated, or simply could not physically or financially support them any longer. Those who were lucky were afforded homes with friends, neighbors or relatives. Still, it took a great amount of strength for a child to accept and endure the realities of a new home and a new family.

In 1940, 58-year-old widow Bertha Frasier resided on Pine Hill Avenue in Johnston. Her 14-year-old adopted son lived with her, along with five wards of the state she had taken in. The youngest of these children were 9-year-old Warner Dexter and his 7-year-old brother Kenneth. The boys were just two of the eight children born to Stephen Allen Dexter and Adele Isabella Parker.

Stephen was a North Scituate native who had married Adele on Jan. 3, 1918, at the age of 21. The couple moved to Camden, New Jersey, and Steven left to work at the newly established American International Shipbuilding Company. The government ship assembly plant was located at Hog Island in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Adele was born in Westerly in the summer of 1896 to dressmaker Charlotte Parker and her first husband. Charlotte married her second husband, photographer Arthur Robert Nevin, after he rented a room in her Providence boarding house. The family later removed to Newport, then Harrison Avenue in Warwick where Adele also began working as a photographer.

Adele and Stephen had moved to Burlington, New Jersey, by 1920. There, Stephen worked on a fruit farm. A few years later, they were living in Scituate, then Glocester, where Stephen was engaged as a dairy farmer. Together they raised a houseful of children – Stephen, George, William, Mervin, Russell, Matthew, Muriel, Warner and Kenneth.

By 1935, Adele and her children were residing on Cucumber Hill Road in Foster. The younger children were all attending Hopkins Mills School, and the older attended Danielson High School.

By this time, her husband Stephen was at the Men’s Reformatory. Within just a few years, Adele would be an inmate at the RI State Hospital for Mental Diseases.

While Warner and Kenneth were taken in by Betha Frasier, 56-old widow Edith Winsor of Smithfield took in 16-year-old Mervin to live with the three male wards she already boarded. Otto Weinhold, a 62-year-old German immigrant, and his wife took 7-year-old Russell, 5-year-old Matthew and 3-year-old Muriel into their Warwick home.

Stephen later married again and was killed in a car accident in Connecticut in 1967. Adele died on Aug. 20, 1960, at Shamokin State Hospital in Coal, Pennsylvania, after suffering from cancer for a year. Her body was returned to Rhode Island and buried in Acotes Hill Cemetery in Glocester.

Her gravestone is engraved with the word “Mother” under which reads, “On this day, my wish came true. I go in peace to the house of many mansions.” Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment