Imagine a time when children were considered the same as adults.
Their shoulders carried the burdens of grown-up responsibilities. Many toiled in America’s coal mines, factories and farms.
The thought of focusing attention on the well-being of the nation’s youngest citizens was a radical concept at the dawn of the 20th century.
It took the vision and determination of a group of pioneering women to bring to light a simple fact: Children have unique needs from their adult counterparts. If society was to better itself, a federal approach was necessary to help children thrive into adulthood.
From that idea the Children’s Bureau became a reality. This month marks the 100th anniversary of the federal agency whose roots are deep in social work.
“They are so my heroes and heroines,” said Mary McCarthy, a member of the NASW board of directors and a co-principal investigator for the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute, a service of the Children’s Bureau. “They were so far ahead of their time.”
McCarthy, whose specialty has focused on promoting the child welfare workforce through recruitment and retention efforts, said the pioneers of the bureau had a goal to improve society — and they did so without personal gain.
“They were able to see far ahead of the social problems of the day to forever change the lives of women and children in this country,” she said. “They showed that if you give a woman an education and health opportunities, you can change a generation. It’s exponential what they did.”
According to the publication Children’s Bureau Express, the New York School of Applied Philanthropy — later Columbia University of Social Work — was the first higher-education program to train people in social work, including child development and youth.
The Express article highlights social work pioneers and social welfare activists Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Julia Lathrop and other women who oversaw Hull House in Chicago, and later the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. These women witnessed the harsh realities of children’s lives cut short, in many cases due to lack of parental supervision, child labor, and by the spread of infectious disease.
“There was little government involvement in social or health issues at that time, so many of these social workers became social activists who helped build public awareness and contributed to efforts to reform child labor, child maltreatment and other issues,” the article notes.
The women convinced lawmakers that if the federal government could justify spending money to study the nation’s crops, the same attention should be given to the nation’s children.
Wald, in a 1909 congressional hearing, said, “… In the name of humanity, of social well-being, of the security of the Republic’s future, let us bring the child in the sphere of our national core and solicitude.”
It took nine years of petitioning lawmakers to see the value of establishing a Children’s Bureau, including a key recommendation from the 1909 First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. Finally, on April 9, 1912, President William Howard Taft signed the act to create the agency into law and charged it to investigate and report “ … upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of people.”
The first chief of the bureau was social worker Lathrop, and with its modest staff of 15 it investigated ways to lower the infant mortality rate. Thanks to those efforts, the rate fell by 24 percent between 1915 and 1921. According to a bureau report on its history — “Four Decades of Action for Children” — over the next 23 years, the agency not only focused on the needs of children, but also became a place where the public could turn for information on families and their social and economic needs.
The bureau was also involved in curbing child labor. Lathrop wrote in 1914 that one step in protecting children could be the enactment of a law stating that a child shall not work under a certain age. In 1917, the bureau was given responsibility for administration of the first federal child labor law, and its staff worked with states to develop procedures for enforcement that laid the groundwork for future federal child-protection efforts.
According to Jake Terpstra, a retired child-welfare specialist with the Children’s Bureau, it was also Social Work Pioneer® Francis Perkins — the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet as Secretary of Labor during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt — who helped draft legislation for public child-welfare services following the Social Security Act of 1935.
Social workers headed the bureau for most of its first 50 years. After Lathrop, Grace Abbott was at the helm from 1921-1934; Katherine Lenroot from 1952-1956; and Katherine Oettinger from 1957-1968.
Former NASW President Dorothy Harris has worked as a Health and Human Services Fellow assigned to the chief of the Children’s Bureau.
She said throughout its 100 years, the bureau has continued to be a leader in the primary goal of social work itself — to improve the quality of life and well-being of individuals, groups and communities.
“Our profession has no better friend than the Children’s Bureau,” she said. “Distinguished social workers like Dr. Carol Wilson Spigner have provided recent leadership and set the agenda for the Children’s Bureau’s work.”
Harris said the bureau has also been a valued field placement for graduate-level social workers from Washington area colleges and universities.
“Social workers within the bureau continue to provide important technical assistance and training to grantees as they design, implement and evaluate programs to expand the evidence base of what works to improve the lives and well-being of children, families and communities,” she said.
The agency supports social work through its formula and discretionary grants to states, communities and programs, Harris said.
“It is these grants that fund the important work of protecting children and youth, supporting parents and families, and building strong and caring communities,” she said.
The Children’s Bureau supports the education of BSW and MSW social workers to prepare them to work in child welfare and supports doctoral dissertations and research grants, to build the knowledge base. The findings of the bureau’s sponsored research are disseminated in articles published in rigorous peer-reviewed social work journals.
Harris also noted that: “As an interdisciplinary field, social work includes theories from economics, education, medicine, law, sociology and psychology. The Children’s Bureau wisely brings together these various disciplines in work groups, expert panels and advisory groups, as well as through jointly funded projects to unite in their shared mission.”
“Today, as social workers, we proudly stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” Harris said. “During this centennial year we remember and thank Julia Lathrop and Grace Abbott, who succeeded Lathrop, and all those early social workers who created a safe and supportive home for children, youth and families in the Children’s Bureau.”
McCarthy, of the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute, said what impresses her most about the history of the bureau is the emphasis by its leaders to use data to support policy changes.
“(The early leaders of the bureau) had a legacy of data-driven practice,” she said. “Using that material was a key element in designing policy and programs. It was revolutionary.”
McCarthy noted the early leaders realized that they had to take a stand and demand that it was the government’s responsibility to disseminate public health information, in particular how to raise healthy children. Such an idea was met with opposition from the medical community at the time. However, “they said the issues were public-health related and they did not back down. One-hundred years later, those early lessons are important reminders,” McCarthy said.
Another aspect of the bureau that McCarthy praises is peer-to-peer education.
“What we have learned is that training alone is insufficient,” she said. “We’ve designed peer communities and ongoing coaching to support efforts to implement their change practice.”
The Children’s Bureau has evolved greatly in its 100 years, but one element has remained consistent: Social workers continue to be its core workforce. They serve in all levels of the bureau — as deputy associate commissioner, division directors, program and policy staff, research and data staff, student interns and research fellows.
Joseph Bock, acting associate commissioner of the bureau, said it is rare for the agency to hire someone who has not worked in the social work field.
“When it comes to implementing these programs, it’s critically important” to have a social work background in practice, said Bock, who holds an MSW.
Bock called the women who worked tirelessly to create the bureau “true pioneers. They changed the whole perception that children are not just little adults. They have special needs, and we need to nurture those needs.”
The Children’s Bureau is planning several events and activities this month in honor of its centennial. The theme of the 18th National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect taking place in Washington, D.C., April 16-20, will be “Celebrating the Past – Imagining the Future.” At the gathering, activities will highlight the bureau’s accomplishments and showcase some of its future plans.
Bock said as the Children’s Bureau looks into the next century, administrators are capitalizing on its centennial year to encourage engagement among the many stakeholders involved in child welfare.
“We are putting together a second-century document that will be based on the core group of folks who work in the field” and those who benefit from the efforts, Bock said. “We want to use this document as a guide for the next century for the field of child welfare.”