In 1883, my twelve-year-old grandfather, George Williams, lived in a Minneapolis orphanage with his younger brother and many other four- to fourteen-year-old boys. But he had family nearby. His family members had food, and some of them had a place to stay. So, why was he in an orphanage?

He was lucky. That’s why.

Lucky? Many children were orphaned, abandoned, homeless, or just in a family that was having a hard time. Was 1883 any different from today for families and children? What was life like for kids in the United States back then?

Statistics about families of that time are difficult to find because our country was still young, the population on the East Coast was expanding rapidly, and many people were moving west, across territory that collected little information.[1] An excellent history of how Americans cared for orphans from colonial times until the late twentieth century was written by Catherine Reef, an award-winning author of nonfiction for young adults.[2] She cited the animosity against immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans as a strong factor affecting the type of care that was offered to children and their struggling families, who often had no place to live. After 1850, children’s aid societies in a few large cities on the East Coast transported more than two hundred thousand orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children on orphan trains to the Midwest for adoption, which often turned out to be indentured work.[3] No national social safety net for children existed until 1912, when the federal government established the Children’s Bureau, which was focused solely on the needs of children and addressed topics such as dependent children and child labor.[4] Whether supported by orphan train placements or helped by Children’s Bureau initiatives, many children of the late 1800s and early 1900s lived with foster families.

My grandfather’s story reflects the time of his birth, in 1870. His father, John Williams, was an Irish immigrant who had fought in the Union Army during the Civil War and then married the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Texas rancher who had fought for the Confederacy. My grandfather was the oldest of five children, all born soon after the marriage. After the 1873 U.S. financial panic affected John’s ability to support the family in Kansas, they moved to the Texas ranch. A Union soldier from Ireland living on a Confederate’s ranch in Texas? We don’t know why John ran away, leaving his wife and young children, but I can imagine that animosity played a role. Family lore says that John went to Mexico. By the time that George’s grandfather was killed on a cattle drive to the railroad stockyards in Kansas in 1879, the Texas ranch was failing. George’s mother took four of her children to live with her immigrant in-laws in Minneapolis, leaving the baby behind to be cared for by her own relatives in Texas. So, again, why was George in the orphanage in Minneapolis? More about that another time.

In the 1880s, many families were still suffering from the terrible events of the Civil War that killed more six hundred thousand fighters and left many veterans disabled.2 Male deaths had a strong effect on widowhood, orphanhood, family structure, and postwar marriages. Housing for families, especially for blacks and immigrants, frequently was limited. By 1900, almost one out of every hundred women delivering a live birth in the United States died of pregnancy-related complications.[5] Many babies and children were left in need of care from another family member, if any was available and able. Are children and families any better off today than in 1883?

Fast-forward to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Improved statistics about births, deaths, housing, and families tell us more about the situations of children and adolescents today. Maternal mortality rates decreased almost 99 percent between 1900 and 1997, 5 providing a higher proportion of young children with a living mother. However, other family members still may be responsible for a child’s basic needs when the child’s primary family struggles to support him or her or experiences crisis. Child Trends, a national research organization, produces research briefs and databases based on several sources of national data.[6] One of their research briefs, “Children Living with and Cared for by Grandparents”, described grandparents as responsible for the care of more than five million children between 2008 and 2010.

Today, there are far fewer orphanages and more foster families than in the late 1800s. Another Child Trends research brief, “Children in Foster Homes: How Are They Faring?”, described arrangements made by public agencies after a determination that the child’s parents are either unable or unwilling to care for him or her. Children may be placed with relatives or with unrelated adults. Many children stay in foster care for a brief period—sometimes just a few weeks—before being returned to their families. Others remain in foster care for months or even years. As of 2001, foster care was serving approximately 805,000 children in the United States; by 2014, that number had decreased to approximately 400,000.

Another Child Trends report on Homeless Children and Youth estimated that an estimated 104 million students were homeless as of the start of the 2013-14 school year. Almost by definition, because their living situations change frequently, homeless children and youth are difficult to count. Children not enrolled in school may be counted through services that they seek at formal shelters. Homeless families and children that live in motels, cars, or other less-typical housing push the estimated number of homeless children and youth significantly higher.

Do you want to learn more? To find out about the status of children nationally and in your own state, check out the resources available from Child Trends and take a look at Kids Count, an annual report produced by the Anna E. Casey Foundation.[7]

[1] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960.

[2] Catherine Reef, Alone in the World: Orphans and Orphanages in America. New York: Clarion Books, 2005.

[3] Marilyn Holt. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

[4] U.S. Children’s Bureau, “Focus Areas,” last modified June 27, 2016, accessed September 16, 2016,

[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Achievements in Public Health, 1900–1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, October 1, 1999, 48:849–858.

[6] Child Trends,

[7] Anna E. Casey Foundation,




Bullying is widespread across cultures and species and throughout known history, traveling from hunter-gatherer groups to today’s world.[1] But when we think about bullying, do we understand what is involved? Do we know how common it is?

Measures of adolescent bullying were introduced in the late twentieth century, when an international group of concerned researchers surveyed students in multiple countries to learn about health-related behaviors. In these studies, researchers defined bullying as the use of power and aggression intended to cause distress or control another.[2] This definition encompasses two categories of bullying. Direct bullying includes physical aggression (hitting and kicking) and verbal aggression (insults, racial harassment, sexual harassment, and threats) against an individual. Indirect bullying includes the manipulation of social relationships, via gossip, racial harassment, sexual harassment, or threats, to hurt or exclude an individual.

Researchers in the United States participated in the international project, completing the first sample survey of more than fifteen thousand students in grades 6 through 10 in U.S. public and private schools in 1998–99.[3] In that U.S. survey, 30% of students reported moderate or frequent involvement in bullying, as a bully (13%), a victim of bullying (11%), or both a bully and a victim (6%). Boys were more likely than girls to be both bullies and victims of bullying. The frequency of bullying was higher among students in grades 6 through 8 than among students in grades 9 and 10. Bullying was more likely to take place away from school than at school.

Impaired psychosocial adjustment was statistically much more likely to occur among students who perpetrated or experienced bullying behavior than among students who were not involved in bullying. However, the pattern of association varies among bullies, victims, and those who were both bullies and victims.

Violence-related behaviors such as physical fights or carrying weapons were associated with bullying and being bullied, for both boys and girls.[4] Violence was more common in boys than girls and used more frequently by bullies than by victims. Violence-related behaviors also were more likely to occur away from school than at school.

Bullying involvement transcends cultural and geographic boundaries.2 Research on adolescent bullying among students at ages 11, 13, and 15 years old during the 2005–06 school year in forty countries found similarities and differences when compared with earlier studies. In all countries, boys reported higher rates of bullying others than did girls. In twenty-nine of the forty countries, rates of victimization were higher for girls than for boys. Among the countries in the study, the Baltic countries reported the highest rates of both bullying and victimization and the northern European countries reported the lowest rates. The U.S. rates were in the middle of the range. Exposure to bullying varied extensively among countries with estimates ranging from about 8% to 45% for boys and from 5% to 36% for girls. Generally, rates of victimization decreased with age; this was true for boys in thirty counties and for girls in twenty-five countries. Age differences found in bullying and victimization may be proxy measurements for behavior during various social contexts (school and peers) and developmental transition (e.g., social, psychological, and biological).

Fast-forward: A new influence is on the screen! Cyberbullying, or electronic aggression, is now well recognized as a serious public health problem affecting children and adolescents.[5] It may include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social-networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake online profiles. Estimates of cyberbullying prevalence rates differ depending on the age of the youths surveyed and the survey technique used. Youth who are cyberbullied are often bullied in person too. In addition, youth who are cyberbullied have a more difficult time getting away from cyberbullying than they do with in-person bullying, due to the technological capacity for sharing and forwarding the initial attack so it can become a repetitive group assault.

A review of multiple studies on cyberbullying found significant proportions (20% to 40%) of children and adolescents have been victims.[6] Demographic data overall are preliminary, but across the studies, girls and sexual minorities (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth) were at the highest risk. Perpetrators, in contrast, are most often male. Accompanying psychopathology, including an increasingly well-established link to suicidality (ideation or attempts), is common.

The electronic platform provides an easier path to the combination bully-victim phenomenon (in which victims become bullies or vice versa) than does in-person interaction. The continued rise in internet penetration and connectivity make combatting cyberbullying an urgent matter.

A multipronged approach to preventing all types of bullying is most likely to succeed. Such an approach would include the following: educational media campaigns; school-based programs; parental oversight and involvement; legislative action; and screening and evidence-based intervention by health care providers, especially pediatricians and mental health professionals. A useful resource for understanding and preventing bullying is available at

[1] Christopher Boehm. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

[2] Wendy Craig, Yossi Harel-Fisch, Haya Fogel-Grinvald, Suzanne Dostaler, Jørn Hetland, Bruce Simons-Morton, Michal Molcho, Margarida Gaspar de Mato, Mary Overpeck, Pernille Due, William Pickett, the HBSC Violence & Injuries Prevention Focus Group, and the HBSC Bullying Writing Group. “A Cross-National Profile of Bullying and Victimization among Adolescents in 40 Countries.” International Journal of Public Health 54, supplement 2 (September 2009): 216–24.

[4] Tonja R. Nansel, Mary Overpeck, Denise L. Haynie, W. June Ruan, and Peter Scheidt. “Relationship between Bullying and Violence among U.S. Youth.” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 156, no. 8 (August 2002): 786–93.

[5] Stop Bullying Now website,

[6] Elias Aboujaoude, Matthew W. Savage, Vladan Starcevic, and Wael O. Salame. “Cyberbullying: Review of an Old Problem Gone Viral.” Journal of Adolescent Health 57, no. 1 (July 2015): 10–18.