Established by the Colorado legislature in 1887, the State Industrial School for Girls was a combined reform school, foster care, and prison that trained young, marginalized women to be domestic servants. Late nineteenth-century industrialization had prompted both urban poverty and anxiety about changing gender roles, leading white, upper-class Protestant women to establish industrial schools to house impoverished and vagrant girls, beginning one of Colorado’s earliest social welfare programs.
The choice to institutionalize troubled youths determined the path of Colorado’s juvenile justice system and served as the prototype for modern programs. Today the State Industrial School for Girls is called the Mount View Youth Services Center, a coeducational residential detention facility and secondary education program in Lakewood.
Origins and Early Years
Before the twentieth century, religious charities typically provided poor relief to the disabled, elderly, and orphaned. Impoverished children were seen primarily as a source of cheap labor. In the nineteenth century, a coalition of upper-class women, philanthropists, and religious leaders began campaigning for the rights of children, establishing the social work profession. As a dedicated class of social reformers pushed for poor relief to become a state responsibility, government entities started to account for the lives of children.
In Colorado concerns about impoverished, vagrant children grew in the 1870s, when Denver’s population expanded rapidly with an influx of immigrants and male transients attracted by mining and agricultural opportunities. In 1881 the Colorado legislature established the State Industrial School for Boys near Lookout Mountain in Golden. As an afterthought, the act included a clause dictating that “girls shall be received and cared for by . . . the state industrial school, as boys are received and cared for.” Yet for six years the state failed to organize a female institution, creating confusion within the court system and angering female leadership. On April 4, 1887, the legislature passed a separate act establishing the State Home and Industrial School for Girls (usually shortened to the State Industrial School for Girls), but even then, it did not allocate funding or choose a location. Instead, Governor Alva Adams contracted with the House of the Good Shepherd in Denver, a Catholic organization run by the Benedictine Sisters, to house convicted girls. His action went against Colorado’s Constitution, which forbade public funding for sectarian or religious institutions, but the state and the court system seemed happy to use the House of the Good Shepherd’s free services for a decade.
In 1895 the state finally set up the State Industrial School for Girls. Governor Albert McIntire opened the school at Denver’s St. Cloud Hotel. He appointed Representative Frances Klock, one of Colorado’s first female lawmakers, as president, and former police matron Sadie Likens as superintendent. The state relocated forty girls from Good Shepherd and county jails into the renovated hotel. Soon after, the State Board of Charities and Corrections (SBCC) moved the school to a larger property in Aurora. The institution’s precarious situation worsened as its leader, Klock, curiously sabotaged funding: as president of the Colorado women’s branch of the American Protective Association, an anti-Catholic organization, Klock voted down her own 1895 bill for school funding because part of the money was intended to reimburse the Benedictine Sisters.
In its early years, the institution did not keep the girls safe. Part of the problem was financial; fueled by antisuffrage hostility, the legislature blatantly favored the boys’ industrial school. Colorado law required counties to pay for the upkeep of incarcerated children, but while the boys’ industrial school received one dollar per ward per day, the girls’ industrial school received only fifty cents per ward per month. Some counties refused to pay even that much, causing significant debt as well as a coal shortage in 1898. That same year, the SBCC investigated the institution for incidents of abuse, finding that staff regularly handcuffed disobedient girls to the walls. After the board resigned, Governor Alva Adams appointed a new superintendent and named more men to the board.
In 1899 the state finally appropriated $25,000 to purchase land and construct a permanent building for the girls’ industrial school. In April 1900, the institution relocated to a forty-acre farm east of Morrison. Sixty girls moved into a twelve-bedroom farmhouse on the property.
Despite the favorable relocation, the state continued to refuse funding. The debt-ridden institution struggled to pay employees and provide basic necessities for the girls; this resulted in poor working and living conditions, which led to escapes and uprisings. The press ridiculed the institution’s mismanagement without acknowledging the funding problems. This public humiliation lasted until 1906, when the state hired an experienced professional from New York named Marion B. Rudgers as superintendent; she promptly forced the legislature to start appropriating funds and outlawed corporal punishment.
Reasons for Commitment
Parents, reformers, and the court system all viewed the industrial school as a method to prevent female immorality. Records show fornication, adultery, and cohabitation as frequent reasons for commitment. Law enforcement could arrest any young woman found wandering public places without approval or at improper hours. After arrest, a court would determine if she lived in “habits of vice and immorality.” These “habits” weren’t defined; the main common denominator was that the girls were impoverished products of industrialization, urbanization, or immigration. Any girl between the ages of six and eighteen living in such conditions could be committed to the industrial school for moral, social, and industrial training. Her sentence would last between nine months and three years, and it could not go beyond her twenty-first birthday.
In practice, courts committed young women for myriad reasons other than juvenile delinquency. Beginning in 1917, married women under the age of twenty-one could be committed for disobeying their husband or husband’s family. In addition, courts sentenced many girls for incorrigibility, defined as any behavior that rebelled against social norms (such as running away from home, socializing at dance halls, and cross-dressing). However, incorrigibility carried a deeper cultural meaning. Society viewed it as a moral affliction, and the supposedly incorrigible girls at the industrial school were often called savages and compared to witches, suggesting that they needed to be controlled, managed, and subdued.
Nevertheless, family members and not law enforcement most frequently committed their daughters. The death of a parent, particularly the mother, often led to commitment. Additionally, courts superseded parental rights in cases of abuse. In this situation, the legal doctrine of parens patriae dictated that the state, acting as the ultimate guardian of citizens’ interests, could intervene on behalf of youths headed toward delinquency. Similarly, a girl could commit herself if desired. The government’s new ability to intervene in private family affairs angered some but gave others, mainly wives and daughters, a welcome legal mechanism to override male heads of household.
Life at the School
The State Industrial School near Morrison was a collection of residential buildings centered around a farm. Each residential cottage housed thirty girls and one housemother. On the farm, the girls grew vegetables; maintained an apple orchard; and kept hens for eggs, hogs for pork, and a dairy cow. In 1919 the institution produced forty barrels of apple cider vinegar and several hundred pounds of apple butter and jelly. Superintendent Elizabeth Purcell believed that creating a family atmosphere focused on education would improve the girls’ moral character more effectively than punishment.
The girls received three hours of formal schooling per day as well as three months of training in housework, needlework, cooking, laundry, and basket weaving. In addition to schooling, the institution enforced a Protestant religious practice. Wards performed devotionals twice per day, attended Sunday school and sermons, and were paroled to a Christian family as a domestic servant for one year, a program intended to model virtuous womanhood as well as provide cheap labor to wealthy Denver families.
The rise of the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century affected the classification and treatment of supposedly “dependent, delinquent, and defective children.” The pseudoscientific field of eugenics preached that “feebleminded” children degraded the nation’s genetic purity by inheriting and passing on negative genetic traits such as sexual promiscuity and criminality. In an attempt to classify and control nature, eugenicist social workers at the industrial school administered diagnostic tests and physical examinations. By the 1920s, they were extensively documenting each girl’s “racial identity” because multiracial children were considered genetically inferior. In the 1930s, the industrial school began administering IQ tests to rank the girls’ mental abilities. For decades, leadership attempted to remove “feebleminded” girls from the institution because they were seen as incurable. In 1918 Superintendent Elizabeth Purcell wrote to Governor Julius Gunter complaining that the “feeble-minded, immoral girl is a menace to society.”
Postwar Legal and Social Changes
During the period of economic prosperity and population growth after World War II, lawmakers expanded New Deal social policies and made significant investments in childhood education and health. Following a nationwide trend, in 1945 the Colorado legislature appointed a special commission to modernize all state laws governing children. The resulting Colorado Children’s Code remains the basis for the state’s laws on juvenile justice, adoption, custody, and welfare.
As part of that modernization, in 1949 the commission recommended overturning a territorial-era indenture law, dictating that “any indigent child must earn the full cost of their upbringing with labor.” A child would be indentured to a master in exchange for board, lodging, clothing, three months of annual schooling, and vocational training. These articles of indenture were a precedent for the industrial school’s parole system, which was replaced by other forms of childcare such as foster placement, adoption, and institutionalization.
Postwar legal changes reflected evolving ideas about youth as the emerging concept of the teenager—a special stage of life between childhood and adulthood—permeated American society. At the State Industrial School, Betty Portner, who served as superintendent from 1949 to 1972, implemented policies affording the girls more freedom and distanced the institution from its penal legacy. Girls could now leave campus and wear their own dresses instead of a uniform. Portner claimed the girls needed strong parental guidance and emphasized their ability to rejoin society after release. For example, she started a Big Sister program allowing girls to shadow University of Colorado sororities. In 1961 the legislature changed the school’s name to Mount View School for Girls to remove the stigma of juvenile delinquency.
Organizational changes to Colorado’s juvenile justice system in the late 1960s and 1970s made the school almost unrecognizable. The deinstitutionalization movement helped reduce youth incarceration and instead fostered preventative, community-based, and mental-health-oriented programs.
Superintendent Portner fought against the new statewide decentralization initiative. Moreover, Portner argued for a traditional model of reinforcing proper feminine behavior, which became an increasingly unpopular opinion in a more liberal society influenced by the women’s rights and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Lawmakers abandoned the traditional industrial-school model in favor of treatments based in behavioral therapy. After much bureaucratic infighting, Portner announced her retirement in 1971.
In 1972 the Colorado Department of Youth Services established the Closed Adolescent Treatment Center (CATC) at Mount View. CATC functioned as a coed, eighteen-bed, high-security corrections and mental health program. Youths aged twelve to eighteen who were determined to be chronic runaways with assaultive, destructive, or self-destructive tendencies qualified for admittance. Medication also became available as an option to control behavior, in particular hyperactivity—that is, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—which was first listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1968.
The state also established the Youth Services Receiving Center, a diagnostic and evaluation center, at Mount View. After evaluation, the state sentenced less-mature youths—both boys and girls—to Mount View, where they could live in either the girls’ cottage, two boys’ cottages, or one coed cottage. In 1976 the state officially dropped Mount View’s single-sex requirement, as Colorado lawmakers now believed girls deserved the same counseling, guidance, and career exploration as boys.
Tough on Crime
In the 1980s, American society condemned juvenile delinquency with incredible force. Media outlets bludgeoned middle-class readers with crime stories. Tough-on-crime policies and cultural fears of youth offenders combined in a frenzy of adolescent imprisonment that peaked during the 1990s.
In Denver, a moral panic rose in the summer of 1993, dubbed the “Summer of Violence,” after a highly publicized incident where a stray bullet hit a ten-month-old boy at the Denver Zoo’s polar bear exhibit. Researchers later found that the summer of 1993 was statistically less violent than previous summers. Nevertheless, lawmakers at the time felt they had to act. In a ten-day special session called by Governor Roy Romer, the state legislature passed eleven new crime laws. One renamed the Department of Youth Services as the Department of Youth Corrections, signaling the shift away from the prevention model of the 1970s. New laws disregarded juvenile confidentiality agreements, instituted mandatory sentencing, and expanded juvenile transfer laws, which moved children to criminal court to be tried and sentenced as adults.
Today Mount View Youth Services Center is a coed secondary school with a long-term treatment program. The twenty-two-acre facility accepts detained youths ages ten to twenty, including those with mental health diagnoses. The Mount View Detained School—part of Jefferson County Public Schools—graduates students with a high school diploma or GED. However, Colorado is trying to reduce its juvenile prison population. In May 2019, Governor Jared Polis signed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which attempts to divert youths away from the juvenile justice system by limiting presentence incarceration and reevaluating supervised probation standards.
More than a century of experimentation at the industrial school has shown the failures and successes of the juvenile justice system. Swinging back and forth like a pendulum, at times Colorado lawmakers insulated juveniles from the adult criminal system by granting them leniency and favoring rehabilitation, believing children to have underdeveloped decision-making abilities. In other decades, public opinion shifted to see adolescents as just as liable as adult criminals, resulting in punitive laws that caused long-term consequences for detained youths. Since the 1890s, the State Industrial School for Girls has provided an avenue for upper-class white women to join the governmental sphere and dictate proper gendered behavior, sometimes to the detriment of the disadvantaged young women put in their care.