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Advocate for Children

Hannah is a woman that I admire greatly. She has a chapter in my first book, They Persisted. She fought tirelessly for the rights of children, those without a voice. Hannah must not be left in obscurity.

Hannah Kent Schoff was born on June 3, 1853, in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Thomas Kent and Fanny (Leonard) Kent. She grew up in Upper Darby and Clifton Heights and was the eldest of five children. She attended Longstreth School in Philadelphia and the Waltham Church School in Massachusetts. By her own account she had a rather ordinary childhood. In 1873 she married an engineer, Frederic Schoff.

Hannah was a loving wife and mother, devoting the first twenty years of married life to raising their children: Wilfred Harvey, born in 1874; Edith Gertrude, born in 1877; Louise, born in 1880; Leonard Hastings, born in 1884, Harold Kent, born in 1886; Eunice Margaret, born in 1890; and Albert Lawrence, born in 1894.

One morning in May 1899, while peacefully sipping a cup of coffee in her sunroom, fingers of light languidly streaming through the curtains, reading her morning paper, Hannah was infuriated to read an article entitled “A Prodigy of Crime.” The article outlined the life of a child, motherless since she was two, sent to an orphanage at that tender age, who then became a drudge in a city boarding house, was arrested and tried in a criminal court and sentenced to jail for starting a fire. They branded her a criminal at eight years of age! Motherless, friendless, and doomed to a life of unimaginable grief. Of course, her actions were wrong, and she was misguided, but she was eight years old, with a very sad history! It was at this point Hannah took action, becoming a relentless reformer and child advocate. “… the injustice in the treatment of this poor child led me to the determination to rescue her if possible and do what I should wish someone to do for my own little girl were she in a similar position.”

In 1879, Hannah traveled to Washington D.C. to attend the first National Congress of Mothers. It was not long before she made her voice heard within Congress and had some influence over the direction Congress took. In 1899, she organized the Pennsylvania Congress of Mothers, which was a state branch of the national organization. Three years later, Hannah was installed as president of the national body, where she put her powerful administrative talents to work. She was inspired, had a clear vision and advocated for the establishment of parent-teacher groups with schools. Her success was manifested when, in 1908, the group changed its name to the Nation Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Organizations. Later, it was renamed The National Parent-Teacher Association. Hannah had blazed trails!

Hannah was determined to work on behalf of young children who were being sentenced in criminal court, but also wanted to do something for the mothers of these children; something that would help them become better parents by understanding good parenting. She believed in a two-pronged approach: support mothers to be better parents, nipping some of the unacceptable behaviors in the bud, and improving the court system. She knew it was a critical piece in changing the lives of many of these children. They held the first juvenile court in Philadelphia on June 14, 1901. Hannah was in attendance. She was appointed probation officer because of her investigation of the conditions of juvenile criminals in Pennsylvania.

In her investigative work at the two state reformatories, Hannah discovered sixteen hundred homeless waifs, some of whom were accused of very serious crimes. Sixteen hundred! Unthinkable, yet there they were. She also noted that couples entering a second marriage used these reformatories as a repository for existing children they didn’t want as they began their lives anew. A dumping ground for throw away children. Hannah was horrified to learn that innocent and helpless little ones were sent to live in dire circumstances, often kept in cages like wild animals, and under the influence of adults who were hardened criminals. She discovered that there were from three to five hundred children passing through these facilities every month at the whim of the presiding judge, who most likely did not know how to deal with them. Hannah shocked the public when she presented the information she had gathered during her investigation. Because of her startling exposé, a juvenile court was established, which resulted in much more effective and efficient provision for young offenders.

Hannah’s passion for improved juvenile courts and probation continued through the education of lawmakers, judges, politicians and administrators, resulting in court systems that were much more just and believed in supporting and rehabilitating juveniles, not only in her state, but in three others. Hannah was now respected as an expert on this subject and was very much in demand as a speaker and trainer. She was the first woman to address the Parliament of Canada, where she trained probation officers for their work in the newly established juvenile court system.

In 1901, the Pennsylvania legislature signed into law the reforms advocated, written, and presented by Hannah. Now that her reforms were law, she continued to monitor and ensure that the newly established juvenile court functioned properly. It was only the second in the nation. Hannah served as president of the Philadelphia Juvenile Court and Probation Association and sat in every trial that was heard over an eight-year period. She strenuously recommended a raise in salary for probation officers and worked to raise money to see this accomplished. Hannah was focused and passionate about her work.

From 1913 to 1919, Hannah collaborated with the U.S. Bureau of Education and help establish a federal Home Education Division. She was chair of the American Committee on the Causes of Crime in Normal Children. During this time, Hannah was also the director of the National Kindergarten Association and she founded the Philadelphia Alliance for the Care of Babies.

Hannah published two books: The Wayward Child, 1915 and Wisdom of the Ages in Bringing Up Children, 1933.


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