Grave Mistakes 

Crown Hill Cemetery lies just north of downtown Indianapolis, and for nearly 150 years it has been both a place of rest and refuge for the city’s residents. Across more than 500 acres, the sprawling hills and lush landscape have provided a quiet oasis of forgotten beauty for both the living and the dead since its dedication in June of 1864.

Over the past century and a half, the graves of poets, presidents, playwrights and gangsters have given the cemetery its caché as a symbol of Indiana’s historic past, especially those buried atop the now prestigious “Crown Hill,” the highest geographic point in the city and the county. With its panoramic views and its social prestige, it seems the closer an individual is buried to the peak of Crown Hill, the closer he or she is to immortality — if not closer to heaven. The large headstones will at least guarantee the living go on remembering these lives and their legacies for countless generations to come.

In sharp contrast to the names of Riley, Harrison, Tarkington, Ayres, Eiteljorg, Kittle, Tutweiller and Irsay that mark the most impressive tombs on Crown Hill proper, there is a much smaller, much easier to overlook plot of land known as “Community Hill.” These graves tell a different type of story about our Hoosier past — one of poverty, neglect and social amnesia; stories most of us don’t know or don’t want to know. Community Hill is where the city’s indigents, widows and orphans have been unceremoniously buried for more than a century. In most cases, these lives and histories have been omitted from history, if not erased.

Among those buried on Community Hill are nearly 700 children in unmarked graves. These are the city’s orphans — the children no one wanted. They were abandoned and neglected by their parents, social services and the community at large while they were alive. The circumstances that led to their deaths have been and continue to be ignored, meaning they have also been abandoned and neglected by subsequent generations. To reclaim these children from oblivion requires an understanding not just about the past, but also of the present. As the saying goes, those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it.

Forgotten deeds
The children buried in the community plot at Crown Hill died while in the care of the city’s three public orphanages — the Indianapolis Children’s Asylum, the Board of Children’s Guardians Home and the Asylum for Friendless Colored Children — between 1892 and 1980. Slightly more than half of the 699 buried on the hill were boys, two-thirds of the children were white and their ages ranged from only a few months to 15 years old.

While Crown Hill long had a policy of providing free burial space for orphans and impoverished children, their graves were unmarked. It wasn’t until an IUPUI intern, Anna Sturgeon, was asked by the Marion County Children’s Guardian Home to investigate an old deed for some ground the Home owned at Crown Hill several years ago that the graves were discovered.

“She found about 67 children in unmarked graves from the Guardian Home,” explains Michael Thierwechter, president of Care for Kids, a not-for-profit organization working at the time to help raise funds for much-needed renovations at the aging Children’s Guardian Home facility. “And then the more she dug, the more she found.” At the end of her digging, Sturgeon had compiled a list of nearly 700 forgotten children by scouring through the pages of handwritten records in boxes at the Guardian Home — all of whom had died between 1892 and 1980 and been buried in unmarked graves at Crown Hill.

Most of the records for the children revealed little about the circumstances that led to their coming to the city’s various orphanages. Until the end of the 19th century, Indianapolis had both workhouses and poorhouses, and many of the children were taken from the families who found themselves in these dire circumstances.

According to the minutes of an 1867 “Widows and Orphans Friends’ Society” oversight meeting, “The inmates of the [orphanages] come from the streets, from the abodes of poverty and wretchedness.” In keeping with their purpose, the society aimed to “keep dependent children out of local poorhouses, away from adult paupers and Roman Catholics — a problem with which reform societies across the North are dealing with in this difficult era.”

An alarming number of children did not survive their stays at the city’s orphanages. While most were certainly brought to the institutions in ill health, many more died from neglect, maltreatment and poor nutrition during their stay.

In 1909, during a conference in Washington, D.C., on the social responsibility towards these dependent children, the Indianapolis Orphan’s Asylum reported that of the 882 infants that had been admitted over the previous 10 years, 345 had died while in custody (nearly 40 percent). In the records from the conference, someone wrote in the margins “formaldehyde in the milk is presumed to have been the cause of high death rates during the early years.”

Once the mass burial site of the Indianapolis orphans was discovered by Sturgeon, plans were put in place almost immediately for some type of memorial. “We quickly abandoned the notion of selling the land at Crown Hill,” says Kent Baker, Care for Kids board member. “We knew we would have to raise money elsewhere for the needed renovations of the Home. It became clear that we had to find a way to memorialize the individual lives of these children.”

Remembering the children
More than 100 years after the first children were placed in these unmarked graves, the Hearts Remembered Memorial, unveiled during a ceremony on June 4, 2006, finally pays the proper recognition to the forgotten children who died from neglect, maltreatment and disease.

The memorial itself, comprised of three black granite monoliths, is reminiscent of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C. The 9-foot center stone features a cut circle housing a bronze sculpture of a boy and a girl, hand-in-hand, and is flanked on either side by 5-foot complementary stones engraved with the names of the 699 children.

“Memorializing these forgotten children is not only the right thing to do, it also helps remind us how precious the lives of our children are,” Thierwechter says. “By finally recognizing the lives of these children, we hope to encourage people to work toward protecting all children. That’s truly what Hearts Remembered is about — honoring the innocent lives lost and reminding everyone to love and nurture all children.”

Indentured servitude
After the 1909 White House Conference on Dependent Children, child care experts increased their advocacy of preserving the family unit, or at least keeping mothers with their children, rather than removing the children from their homes and placing them in institutions. As a result, states began to provide pensions for mothers so that they could keep their children with them even in difficult financial times.

Then, in 1935, the Aid to Dependent Children provision of the Social Security Act made money available for mothers in order to keep their families together. Additionally, leaders in child care had come to believe that orphanages were not the answer for vulnerable children. They felt that institutions could not meet the needs of the individual child with proven success.

Meta Gruner, director of the Indiana Children’s Bureau at the time, echoed these sentiments as she set the stage for the closing of the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum in 1941. “I think we have progressed beyond … food, shelter and clothing as substitutes for what a child has lost in his own home,” she wrote.

Today, the majority of children who are unable to live with one or both of their parents are placed in what has become known as foster care. The intention is to find substitute homes for the children that will in some way replicate a loving and safe environment for them to grow up in.

Foster care in America began as a rather unusual and controversial social experiment as early as 1853, when the children of immigrants throughout New York City’s slums were routinely rounded up by the authorities and placed on what became known as Orphan Trains. Though the children were supposed to come from homes without parents, history later revealed that a large number of children were simply taken from their homes in an effort to eradicate, or at the very least reduce, the immigrant population.

Orphan Trains were literally railroad cars filled with children from the East who were then taken West. The trains stopped at more than 45 states across the country, as well as Mexico and Canada. Prospective families took the children in as indentured servants. Indiana received the greatest number of the estimated 250,000 children who were placed on the trains.

Indentured servitude was also an option for children placed in Indianapolis’ orphanages. Each year a large number of children were bound over through a legal contract between the asylums and outside parties who agreed to take them in and raise, feed and educate them in exchange for their labor. In 1852, the Indiana General Assembly revised state law (Chapter 68) in order that “children may be bound to serve as apprentices for any term not extending beyond the age of 21 for males or 18 for females. If a female marries, the indenture is annulled. Apprentices older than 14 must endorse the indenture agreement. Further, superintendents of county asylums are charged with binding out such poor children as fall under their care … see[ing] that children so bound are properly treated.” The law also stipulated that the children were to receive a sum of $50 in exchange for their work when they were released from servitude.

It is unknown how many children were “bound out” as servants, or how many of these children died in their new substitute homes. Some of the children struggled in their new surroundings, and a great number ran away. But quite a few children flourished with their new families, and though records are sketchy, at least two governors, one congressman, one sheriff, two district attorneys, three county commissioners and numerous bankers, lawyers, physicians, journalists, ministers, teachers and entrepreneurs spent their youths as indentured servants in Indiana.

A thing of the present
While the children found in Crown Hill died between 1892 and 1980, the fact is that children continue to die needlessly every day. “The children at Crown Hill may be only a fraction of the forgotten children in the United States,” according to Michael Thierwechter. “And this problem didn’t end in 1980. The tragedy lives on today.”

For the past several years, Indiana has had the highest rate of children who die as a result of abuse and neglect in the United States, and in more than 40 percent of the deaths, there were substantiated investigations of child abuse and neglect prior to the death. Today, most children in foster care in Indiana are taken from their parents as a result of police or court action, and the overwhelming majority of those cases involve abuse of some type.

As of June 2004, the last date for which records are available, there were 11,176 Indiana children living in state custody. Nearly half were living in foster care, 11 percent were placed with a guardian and 10 percent were placed in the care of a relative. The remaining children, 32 percent, were placed in group homes, hospitals or private institutions, including orphanages. Almost half of the children who left the state’s custody that year did so because of emancipation, transfer to another agency or because they ran away. Approximately one-third of the children were permanently placed with relatives, 9 percent were reunited with their families and 3 percent were adopted.

It’s easy to think of these children as someone else’s problem. It’s easy to dismiss their abandonment and neglect as someone else’s mistake. But as the nearly 700 children buried on Community Hill have taught us, our collective actions — or inaction — always come back to haunt the living.

The grave mistakes of the past are being repeated every day that a child in Indiana goes without a home, lives without opportunity and dies without recognition that we are all responsible for their demise. They are not ghosts. They are not historical blunders. And every week in Indiana, another child dies as a result of abuse and neglect.

As the inscription on the Hearts Remembered monument at Crown Hill Cemetery reminds us, every life touches someone and no life should ever be forgotten … especially the life of a child.

Care for Kids
The Care For Kids Foundation is taking the Hearts Remembered Program nationwide, and your support is greatly appreciated. Additional corporations, foundations and individuals are needed to join the effort to memorialize forgotten children and educate the public about the importance of paying more attention to our children. Their message is simple — it is not in the best interest of humanity to discard any child. They are the future. For more information about the Care for Kids Foundation contact 317-257 KIDS;; or visit

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