Oaklawn School for Girls

Contributing Writer

HOPKINTON – In 1880, the State of Rhode Island purchased almost nine acres of land on Brayton Avenue in Cranston where the new Oaklawn School for Girls would be constructed. Prior to the existence of this institution, both male and female juveniles who were decided to be “troubled” were placed at the Providence Reform School. Now, the girls would be housed at Oaklawn while the boys would be sentenced to Sockanosset School for Boys. 

Oaklawn School looked more like a beautiful Victorian home than an institution. Complete with a sewing room, classroom, washrooms and bedrooms, the structure was lavishly decorated with potted plants, ornate lamps and framed wall hangings. For most of the girls sent there, this was the only safe, loving home they had ever known.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the legal fate of children was often the result of their parents’ poor choices. Girls who had run away from home to escape physical abuse were considered to be juvenile delinquents. Girls who were thought to be overly interested in boys, who skipped school, or who failed to do an adequate amount of work within the household were merely one step away from being placed within Oaklawn School for the term of their minority.

For about 80 years, this school served as the location where young girls on troublesome paths were able to gain an academic education, an understanding of etiquette and job skills that could carry them through life. From every town in Rhode Island, as well as those from neighboring states, girls from the ages of 11 to 19 came to Oaklawn decidedly in need of reform and, more often than not, personally in need of love, care and safety.

A new book “Oaklawn School for Girls: Juvenile Reform in Rhode Island” lays out the history of the State’s juvenile reform system and the inner workings of Oaklawn School. Containing staff reports, the personal letters of inmates and numerous photographs, short biographies of hundreds of inmates and employees are also included.

After the structure was demolished, the location of the school’s cemetery was lost to time. Known to contain the bodies of least seven girls who died while at the school, and perhaps more, efforts have been made to locate the burial ground without success. The book details a visit to the property by the research team and noted Hope Valley psychic medium Karen Bruscini, as she gave her thoughts and feelings on where the burials may be and the life stories of the “lost” girls.

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