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Catawba County Department of Social Services
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Karen Harrington,
Phone: (828) 695-5600


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3030 11th Avenue Drive SE
Hickory, NC 28602

Mailing Address:
PO Box 669
Newton, NC 28658

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Although Catawba County did not always have a Department of Social Services, county government always played a role in helping county residents who were poor, disabled or otherwise unable to support themselves.

The scope and nature of that help has changed dramatically over time. Some of the types of help initially offered later came to be considered oppressive of ineffective. But for the most part, county government, and its citizens, felt obligated to help the stranger, the widow and the orphan. This desire undoubtedly originated in Biblical teachings.
When Catawba County was formed in 1842 by splitting from Lincoln County, life was extremely different than it is today. The area was primarily rural. Most residents were owners of small farms. There were few slave owners and even fewer who would have fit the stereotypes of Gone with the Wind.

Catawba County initially had officials known as Wardens of the Poor. They were responsible for taking care of charity cases in their part of the county. In the earliest days of the county, limited financial assistance would have been handed out at the discretion of these officials.

Like almost every other county in the United States, the county also had a County Home, also referred to as a Poor House or Poor Farm. Persons who needed a place to live might be sent there by order of the county government. They were expected to work on the farm in exchange for room and board.

Practically anyone who was unable to support themselves, and who had no family members who were able or willing to care for them, could be sent to the County Home. Many were elderly and disabled. Others might be children or persons suffering from a chronic illness such as tuberculosis. In most cases, the person petitioned the county government for "relief" and was sent to the County Home. Few were sent there involuntarily. Since, in practice, most of the "paupers" were unable to work on a farm, the county placed petty criminals at the County Home to do the farm work.

Another alternative was to place poor people in the homes of other county residents to work as indentured servants. Even children could become indentured servants. The master had almost total control over the servant's life, including forbidding the servant from marrying. The main difference between being an indentured servant and being a slave was that the time of service for the indentured person was fixed by a legal agreement. If the person was a child, they were freed from service after reaching adulthood.

This system of governmental control and charity began to disintegrate following the Civil War, although vestiges would remain for decades. The Civil War was very disruptive to local families and the local economy, even though no major battles were fought here.

At the end of the war, the social structure was disrupted as slaves were freed and many farmers returned home disabled or did not return at all. In the wake of the war and Reconstruction, there were many widows and orphans needing support. Many women were forced into the unfamiliar role of being heads of households. The county and state tried to alleviate the suffering by providing small pensions for Confederate veterans and their widows. The African-American population, now free but oppressed by the Jim Crow system, banded together to form their own support system, including churches, fraternal orders and schools.

One bright spot on the horizon was the industrial revolution, which became a significant force in the early 1900s. Many hard-pressed farmers saw the new industries as a chance to improve their economic situation. Many moved into the new "mill villages" that were being built throughout the region by cotton mill owners. Although the mill villages served their purpose, and in some cases provided extensive social benefits for employees, the pay was never high. Industrial accidents, child labor, and disease were common. Interestingly, Brookford Mills was one of the early employers of social workers, employing at least two, and possibly three women who, at different times, served as superintendents of the county Welfare Office.

The first county Welfare Worker was hired in 1919 as mandated by state law. He was Charles E. Hefner, a local politician and grocery store owner. After his term in office, the post was occupied by a series of women. As social work became more professionalized, the Welfare Office, along with most others in the nation, began to campaign against County Homes, which they viewed as an out-of-date and substandard way of dealing with poverty.

Instead, they began to push for more specialized institutions to care for persons in need of assistance. For example, Dorothea Dix, an early social reformer, persuaded the state to appropriate money for a state mental hospital. When one was opened in Raleigh, it was named after her. But it was soon apparent that a single hospital for the insane would not be adequate. So in the 1870s, funds were appropriated for a second hospital to serve western North Carolina. Catawba County campaigned to locate the hospital here, but Morganton in Burke County was selected. This hospital, which opened in 1877, became Broughton Hospital. It is clear from its ornate architecture that it was considered a crowning achievement of social reform in its day.

About the same time, the state opened the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton. Another institution, Western Carolina Center, opened to serve persons with developmental disabilities. "Training schools," designed to keep youthful offenders out of adult prisons, were also constructed, beginning in the early 20th century. Specialized hospitals to care for persons with tuberculosis were also built.

Many orphanages were established, beginning in the large cities of the North in the mid-1800s. In many cases, the children placed in orphanages were not true "orphans," in that they had at least one living parent. But the parents could not afford to support them. However, as orphanages grew larger and larger, public sentiment turned against them.

So the orphanages began to establish "cottages," with small groups of children living with house parents within the larger institutions. Most changed their names from "orphanages" or "orphan asylums" to "children's homes."

The heyday of orphanages arrived later in North Carolina. The large number of orphans and poor widows following the Civil War spurred the statewide movement. Catawba County's Sipe's Orchard Home opened in 1945, near the end of this movement. By that time, most welfare workers believed placing children in foster homes was a better alternative, but the county's Welfare Department continued to place children in orphanages for many years. In most cases, the children placed in "children's homes" lived there until they reached adulthood.

Meanwhile, a movement was developing to help needy mothers directly rather than removing their children and placing them in orphanages. In 1929, the state began by providing a small payment to certain single mothers (usually widows) called Mother's Aid. The program would later be replaced by the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the mid-1930s.

However, this system eventually produced resentment. As divorce and unwed parenthood became more common, Social Services became involved in collecting child support. After decades of trying to reform AFDC, it was eventually eliminated in 1996. It was replaced with the much more limited program called Temporary Aid to Needy Families or Work First in the mid-1990s.

Throughout the years, many other programs arose and were later abandoned. Others began as small experiments during the Great Depression and later grew to become very large "entitlement programs." Social Security's old age pensions, Food Stamps, Medicare and Medicaid are some of the most prominent examples.

Throughout the years, county, state and federal governments have struggled to devise the best ways to help needy residents without producing a permanent class of citizens dependent on government subsidies. Most officials wanted to provide the least amount of aid necessary, for the shortest amount of time, while providing it in the most humane manner possible.
The result has been an epic saga involving politicians, volunteers, charity and civic groups, professional social workers, and the persons served. This story continues today, as the department strives to live up to its mission statement: "To strengthen, with dignity and respect, the quality of life for all citizens through supportive services and advocacy."

For details, download our history timeline.