Through the decades, Santa Barbara has benefited from the leadership of a series of remarkable women. One of these was hired as a young assistant in the Santa Barbara County Probation Department in 1913 and from that modest beginning, Anna E. McCaughey would go on to transform the fabric of social welfare programs on the South Coast.
Anna’s father, George McCaughey, was a native of Londonderry, Ireland. He immigrated to California in the early 1860s and settled in Santa Barbara in 1867. Anna’s mother, Susan Coyle McCaughey, was born in Wisconsin and journeyed across the plains with her family when still an infant in the early 1860s. Her family eventually settled here and Susan was one of the first students to attend the newly opened boarding school run by the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul.
Anna was born in 1882 and, following in her mother’s footsteps, attended St. Vincent’s, which operated not only a school but also an orphanage. Misfortune struck the family in 1889 when George McCaughey died. Anna was only seven, the oldest of the four children. The following years were ones of extreme financial hardship and Anna went to work at an early age to help support the family. Perhaps this experience, plus her attendance at St. Vincent’s and interaction with the orphans there, helped shape her attitudes toward society’s less fortunate members.
McCaughey was a charter member of the local chapter of the Native Daughters of the Golden West and was instrumental in getting this chapter involved in working with homeless children, a project she worked to expand to the state level. This brought her to the attention of Superior Court Judge S. E. Crow, head of the juvenile court, who appointed her to the S.B. County Probation Department in July 1913. Here she would stay, in various capacities, for 32 years.
One of the most important positions she held was head of the juvenile detention home. McCaughey was instrumental in changing the purpose of the home. Under her leadership, it became not just a holding facility for children who had gone “bad,” with an emphasis on punishment, but evolved into a child guidance agency where, in a nurturing environment, children could hopefully be placed back on the right track. In an interview in 1949, McCaughey pointed out that the poor and the disadvantaged were often intimidated and frightened by the forces of the law. In all her work, she advocated outreach programs to get “into the home and help to carry on there the teachings that make for worthwhile endeavors : to help develop character.” Since oftentimes the less-advantaged did not speak English, McCaughey made it a point to become fluent in Spanish.
McCaughey was a ubiquitous presence on the local social work scene. She was involved in starting nutrition programs for poor children, in the establishment of the Eastside Social Center, and in setting up a psychological counseling service under the auspices of the probation department. She was a cofounder of the Woman’s Auxiliary Board of St. Francis Hospital, which, among many functions, saw to the funding and development of the hospital’s school of nursing. Upon her retirement from the probation department in 1945, she took up a position with the Catholic Welfare Bureau. It was her failure to appear for a board meeting of the bureau that led to the discovery that she had died in her room at the Lobero Hotel (now the Lobero Building) on the night of August 29, 1950.
In 1934, Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles conferred upon Anna McCaughey its highest honorary degree, Doctor of Laws, a measure of the esteem in which she was held. The effects of the good doctor’s endeavors may still be felt today.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.