Leake and Watts Services, Inc. was founded in 1831 by John Watts, Jr., in honor of the desire and bequest of his friend, John George Leake. Moved by the rise in urban poverty and the reduction of public welfare aid for children in the 1820’s, John George Leake and John Watts, Jr. were at the forefront of a "social responsibility" movement of benevolence and charity. This movement gave birth to numerous orphanages and other social service agencies in the decades to come. When the Leake and Watts Orphan House opened its doors, it was one of the first private charitable institutions in the entire country dedicated to children in need.
Originally at the site of Trinity Church in the financial district, in 1843, the Leake and Watts Orphan House, home to 60 boys, opened at 112th Street and Amsterdam at the current site of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In 1850, it opened its doors to girls as well. In 1890, the Leake and Watts Orphan House moved to its current location in Yonkers, the 30-acre farm of the famous thespian Edwin Forrest with grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.
As the decades went on, Leake & Watts continually found new and innovative ways to meet the changing needs of society. In 1921, Leake & Watts introduced the cottage system with cottage "parents" to guide and assist the girls. In 1937, a Social Service Department was established to address the therapeutic needs of those in care. In 1944, Leake & Watts founded its Foster Home Department and began placing children in homes in the community.
Winning praise from Mayor O'Dwyer, Leake & Watts merged with the Orphan Home and Asylum of the Episcopal Church and the Sevilla-Hopewell Society of Brooklyn in 1947, expanding its capacity and scope. In 1955, Leake & Watts increased its efforts to find permanent adoptive homes for children unable to return to their birth families.
As the needs of society changed, Leake & Watts again adapted to the growing needs of the times. In 1976, Leake & Watts expanded its social service efforts to include programming for children with psychiatric disorders and developed partnerships with several local psychiatric hospitals which still flourish today. In an effort to stabilize families, in 1979, Leake & Watts established the East Bronx Family Service Center, providing foster care preventive services including substance abuse treatment, job training, supportive housing assistance, and other critical services. From 1984-89, Leake & Watts expanded with the establishment of five early childhood education programs and a Head Start program to serve low-income families. Establishing itself as a leader in the field of HIV/AIDS services in 1985, Leake & Watts was the first social service agency in the nation to accept children with HIV/AIDS and implemented a specialized program to address this specific population in foster care. Leake & Watts also expanded its group home services to include two homes for teenage mothers and their infants.
In 1994, Leake & Watts introduced the "village" concept, an expansion of the cottage system, and began construction of nine state-of-the art cottages at the Yonkers campus as well as recreational facilities. Construction also began on the Carol and Frank Biondi Education Center, featuring comprehensive educational and indoor recreational facilities. In 1996, Leake & Watts entered the field of juvenile justice and assumed operation of Woodfield Cottage in Valhalla, NY. This secure detention facility serves youth ages 10-16 awaiting trial with a focus on rehabilitation and prevention. The late 1990's also included additional preventive services for families struggling with HIV/AIDS, the opening of the Marion and George Ames Early Childhood Learning Center on the Yonkers campus, and a greater emphasis on a neighborhood-based approach in our foster care program aimed at placing children in their local communities.
In 1997, Leake & Watts opened Shrady Cottage, a specialized program at our Residential Treatment Center for girls in foster care who have been sexually exploited and have emotional challenges. Our Residential Treatment Center began accepting students referred from their school districts’ Committees on Special Education in 2006. By 2009, the Residential Treatment Center had shifted from primarily serving youth in foster care to a combination of youth requiring educational and therapeutic supports, some of whom are in foster care.
Since 2000, Leake & Watts has continued to deliver new and innovative services to those in need. In 2002, Governor Pataki presented Leake & Watts with the Bronze Empire State Advantage Award for excellence in performance and practices. In 2004, Leake & Watts began to provide Medicaid Service Coordination to children and young adults with developmental disabilities and began to expand its developmental disabilities services in this area of need. In 2007, Leake & Watts opened its first group home in the Bronx for young adults with developmental disabilities. Since then, Leake & Watts has expanded its services to children and adults with developmental disabilities to include ten group homes, recreation and respite services both on-site and at-home, and supportive employment and day habilitation services. In 2010, the Children’s Learning Center, serving preschoolers with autism, joined the Leake & Watts family.
In 2011, Leake & Watts celebrated its 180th Anniversary. Today, the agency serves over 3,000 children, adults, and families in need each day. Whether it is a child who has been abused and neglected, a parent struggling with substance abuse, or a young adult with autism learning to living independently, we strive to educate, support and empower our most fragile neighbors each day.
To see more historical photos from the Leake & Watts Archives, visit our Leake & Watts History Photo Gallery on Pinterest.