Brief History of the Federal Children’s Bureau: (1912 – 1935)
By: Angelique Brown, MSW
Introduction: The early 1900’s was a time in which the United States was attempting to change it stance on child labor and end abusive child labor practices. As more advocates started to address the issue, they recognized that the federal government was not yet fully engaged in addressing the physical or mental well-being needs of children. It was not until President Taft signed a bill making the Children’s Bureau part of the Federal Government that the needs of children began to be addressed on a much larger scale.
From an Idea to a Bill
The creation of the Children’s Bureau did not come about easily or quickly; it took nine years of efforts by individuals and organizations to convince Congress that more of the nation’s attention needed to focus on the conditions affecting the lives of children. It was in 1903 that Lillian Wald, a nurse and founder of the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, who first suggested a Federal Children’s Bureau. She made the suggestion to Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League who fought zealously against child labor. Kelly had previously proposed a United States Commission for Children that would collect and analyze information about the physical, mental and moral conditions and prospects of the children in the United States. It was the joint activism of these two women who were responsible for the concept that later became known as the Federal Children’s Bureau.
Through Dr. Edward T. Devine, a trustee of the National Child Labor Committee, Wald and Kelley were able to present their idea of the Bureau to President Theodore Roosevelt who encouraged them to clearly define the intent and purpose of the Bureau. Support also came from the National Child Labor Committee which went about garnering support for the Bureau’s creation. A draft of the legislation to create the Children’s Bureau was presented at the second annual meeting of the National Child Labor Committee in 1905. The committee met with President Roosevelt who gave his endorsement. However, Congress took more convincing than the president. A total of 11 bills, 8 in the House of Representatives and 3 in the Senate were introduced over the following six years. Even though Congress did not pass any of the previous bills the idea of the Bureau was gaining support. Parents’ organizations, labor unions, health workers, social workers, and women were all advocates for the bill that would bring a Federal presence to address the state of children in the U.S.
White House Support
In 1909, President Roosevelt convened the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. At the conference, attendees recommended that the bill establishing a Federal Children’s Bureau be passed. Following the conference, the president sent a message encouraging Congress to pass the measure. In 1910, President Taft gave his endorsement of the proposal. He gave his support by first speaking about the Department of Agriculture and the approximately $15 million spent to support farmers and stating, “…if out of the Public Treasure at Washington we can establish a department for that purpose, it does not seem to be a long step or a stretch of logic to say we have the power to spend the money on a Bureau of Research to tell how we may develop good men and women.” The final bill was passed by the Senate on January 13, 1912 and by the House on April 2, 1912; and on April 9, 1912 it was signed into law. Congress subsequently appropriated $25,640 for the first year’s operating budget. This funded 15 positions in addition to a chief. The charge given to the Bureau and its staff was to investigate and report “upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people.”
The First Two Directors of the Bureau (1912-1921)
The passage of the Act to create the Federal Children’s Bureau represented a significant milestone in legislative history because it legitimized the Federal Government’s role in the protection and welfare of children. Over the next 23 years, the Bureau served as the point of contact in the Federal Government for consideration of the needs of children as well as where people turned for information on families and their economic and social needs.
Julia Lathrop was appointed by President Taft to head the new Bureau. With wide statutory authority and limited funds, she was tasked with charting the course for the Bureau in the coming years. Her first order of business was to establish the Bureau’s priorities. She did this with the help of Lillian Wald, Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Dr. Devine and others. The recommendations that resulted from this group helped to establish a roadmap for going forward. From the beginning, Lathrop showed that the Bureau was concerned with the well-being of all children. In her first annual report she stated that the Bureau “…is to serve all children, to try to work out the standards of care and protection which shall give to every child his fair chance in the world.” She said that it was obvious, “…that the Bureau is to be a center of information useful to all the children of America, to ascertain and to popularize just standards for their life and development.”
The early years of the Children’s Bureau were spent: collecting and analyzing data on infant and maternal mortality and morbidity; developing a plan of action for a maternity and infancy grant program; collecting data on the growth of infants and young children; and initiating investigations and reporting on the social, health, and employment problems of children in the U.S. The first piece of work to come out of the Bureau was the Study of Why Babies Died. These first years were spent researching the areas included in the legislative mandate. With the benefit of the data that was collected, the Children’s Bureau began to clearly define its mission and to move forward in investigating and reporting upon matters of child welfare.
In the Bureau’s second decade between 1921, when Grace Abbott was named as Julia Lathrop’s successor as chief of the Bureau, and 1934 the Children’s Bureau and the country saw a brief period of prosperity but more significantly, had to deal with the economic turmoil of the Great Depression. The Depression did not halt the activities of the Bureau. Work on behalf of children continued with the Children’s Bureau completing studies in a number of areas affecting children and families including infant and maternal mortality; services for crippled children; child growth, health, and nutrition with a particular focus on the prevention of rickets; child labor and dependency; foster care; children of working mothers; adoption; children born out of wedlock; juvenile courts and delinquency; and economic handicaps and the effects of the Great Depression on children and measures for mitigating them. With data from these studies and through the administration of the Maternity and Infancy Act the Bureau was well prepared to present a strong case to the President’s Committee on Economic Security in 1934 and to Congress in 1935 regarding what was needed to protect the health and welfare of children and mothers as well as clearly show a need to regulate child labor.
In 1934, the Children’s Bureau was asked by the Committee on Economic Security to collect data and make legislative proposals for the children’s programs. These programs would be included with other proposals being developed by the Committee on public assistance for the aged, general public health, and unemployment compensation. The Committee recommended the expansion of the mother’s pension system which was to be financed with Federal, State, and local funds and Federal aid to States for the expansion and development of maternal and child health programs, child welfare services, and medical care for crippled children. These programs were part of the legislative package that was signed into law as the Social Security Act of 1935 and gave the Children’s Bureau the responsibility for programs continuing to focus on children.
Continuing the Mission Today
The Federal Children’s Bureau is still working on behalf of children and has remained true to the spirit of those who initially conceptualized it. The Bureau remains committed to meeting the needs of families and children with entitlement programs as well as discretionary grants because although the times have changed since its inception, families are still facing many of the same problems that made the Bureau necessary in the first place.
Sources and Related Information:
The U.S. Children’s Bureau’s website can be found here:
For a timeline celebrating 100 years of the Children’s Bureau:
For more information on the history of the Children’s Bureau please visit:
Early Children’s Bureau Publications:
Current for resources on protecting children and strengthening families:
Text of the Social Security Act of 1935: