The War of 1812 resulted in mass chaos and instability of communities, which resulted in homeless and destitute children — similar to how the drug epidemic has affected communities today. The need existed for a safe haven for the protection and nurturing of children of the District of Columbia. Washington City Orphan Asylum, known today as the Hillcrest Children and Family Center was established to fulfill the need.
Congress conferred a Federal Charter in 1815, on what was then called the “Washington Orphan Society,” and Mrs. Dolley Madison was elected its first Directress. The mandate of the young institution was to provide food, housing, and job training to the boys and girls that wandered the city’s streets.
Founded 200 years ago by President Madison’s “First Lady,” this institution is still achieving and growing today. In keeping with its original charter, it has changed its emphasis several times in order to meet new conditions in the country and in the city. For more than 100 years, the organization continued to provide homes for orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children. The institution provided these children with educational and vocational training in addition to a caring environment for which they could grow into productive adulthood. In 1935, when new facilities were built at Nebraska Avenue and Van Ness Streets, the name of the institution was changed to “Hillcrest,” a Children’s Village,” to reflect its expanding role.
By 1950, postwar prosperity and changing family patterns had dramatically reduced the number of orphans that needed care. The directors of the institution perceived a new need: to treat and care for children with severe emotional problems requiring residential care. To meet this need, in 1951 Hillcrest entered into a partnership with the Washington Institute of Mental Hygiene and Children’s Hospital. Working in concert, the three organizations cooperated in opening the first residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children in the District of Columbia. At that point, the Hillcrest Children’s Village became the “Hillcrest Children’s Center.” In a very short time, it earned a reputation as a leader in the field of treating severely disturbed youngsters and as a professional training center for therapists and other professionals working with disturbed children. In October 1965, 150 years after its founding, the institution broke ground for a modern facility at 1325 W Street, NW, Washington, DC.
In recent years, Hillcrest was no longer affiliated with Children’s Hospital, after its move from the neighborhood had once again shifted its emphasis. It moved from providing residential care to providing outpatient mental health services for children and their families. Special emphasis has been placed on the needs of single parents, especially teen-aged mothers, and on families crippled by poverty. Hillcrest provided professional testing and counseling services to the highly acclaimed Edward C. Masque Parent and Child Center, serving young children, their families, and other adults living in deprived circumstances.
In working with this agency, Hillcrest helped young parents to raise children who would be able to break out of the cycle of poverty and under-education into which they were born. Programs at Hillcrest also served physically and emotionally abused children and their families. Expanded service growing out of Hillcrest’s current in-house and outreach program is now beginning to meet the special psychological needs of the children of the homeless, those of substance abusers, those threatened by the AIDS epidemic, and especially the adolescent sons of inner city families who have become the special victims of the drug scene, internecine violence, and self-destructive behavior.