As social workers across the United States work to transform practices, programs, policies and systems to better meet our 21st-century health and human service challenges, we should seek transformation through renewal of time-honored social work approaches.
The NASW Press recently published “The Children’s Bureau: Shaping a Century of Child Welfare Practices, Programs and Policies,” edited by Katharine Briar-Lawson, Mary McCarthy and Nancy Dickinson.
As I read through this thought-provoking publication, I could clearly see that a renewal of the social work methods and approaches introduced within the Children’s Bureau over the last 100 years provides a solid foundation for advancing 21st-century social work practice.
When the Children’s Bureau was created in 1912 within the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, it became the first government agency in the world focused on children and the first federal agency headed by a woman.
From its inception, the Children’s Bureau has been closely linked with social work. In fact, four of its first five directors were social workers. The bureau’s development closely paralleled the growth and development of professional social work; its history and legacy are inextricably linked with the values embedded in the social work profession.
From the beginning, the bureau insisted on hiring professionals that were subject-matter experts. The bureau’s preference for social workers is reflected in its long-standing tradition of providing strong support for social work education, training and research.
Consider the social work approaches employed by the Children’s Bureau in the early years under the direction of its first director, Julia Lathrop. Armed with research, outreach, interventions and political advocacy, the bureau reduced the infant mortality rate by half — from 124 per 1,000 in 1910 to 66 per 1,000 in 1930.
Director Lathrop and her staff employed three principles to guide all aspects of their work: using data, focusing on children and families, and applying an advocacy approach to practice.
The Children’s Bureau leveraged research about the causes of infant mortality to understand the policies, advocacy, services and interventions that were needed to reduce the infant mortality rate.
The bureau’s strategy included integrating prevention tactics, applied research, multilevel outreach, and political advocacy. In collaboration with universities, the bureau produced evidence-informed documents on child and maternal health. Its first published pamphlet, “Infant Care,” became the federal government’s best-selling publication, with more than 12 million copies distributed between 1914 and 1940.
To reduce infant mortality in the 1920s and 30s — informed by research that showed a correlation between infant mortality and income, poor housing and inadequate sanitation — the Children’s Bureau worked to establish social and economic rights for children and mothers through programs and policies to eradicate female poverty.
The bureau led the movement toward community-based intervention programs and societal reform policies, such as women’s pension programs, and later through Aid to Dependent Children, established in the Social Security Act. These social-reform efforts showed a more comprehensive understanding and focus on the child in the context of family and community, shaping the bureau’s 20th-century emphasis on preserving families rather than the 19th-century model of rescuing children.
Today, we can honor the first 100 years of the Children’s Bureau by using data to guide programs, by including the voices of children and families in service delivery, and by placing more emphasis on well-being and trauma, family-focused practice, and continuous quality improvement in systems development.
Armed with the knowledge that poverty doesn’t result from personal shortcomings, we must address the challenges of homelessness, food insecurity and unemployment on a public policy level.
In essence, we must integrate child and family welfare into our social work practice at all levels. The early leaders of the Children’s Bureau understood that child and family welfare is defined as the wellness, well-being, healthy growth and happiness of all children and their families.
Successful efforts to improve the welfare of children and families in this century will also focus on approaches that support and empower families, and approaches that make community structures more supportive to families.
As we strive to meet 21st-century health and human service challenges, it’s exciting to think about expanding strategies that work, funding research that explores new solutions, and creating strong partnerships to ensure impact across communities.
Part of this successful transformation will be found in a renewal of traditional social work practices.