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Child Welfare League of America

Two girls protesting child labor during the May 1, 1909 parade in New York City.
Two girls protesting child labor during the May 1, 1909 parade in New York City.

Child Welfare League of America

Formally established January 2, 1921, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) has been one of the most important national organizations in the history of American child welfare. The creation of the CWLA coincided with the end of the progressive era and the beginning of another: an era dedicated to establishing national policies and standards combined with developing and disseminating program materials and practices to affiliate members thereby raising the quality of child caring services throughout the nation.

Background: The seeds for establishing a “national” child welfare advocacy organization were planted by a group of influential child welfare advocates attending the 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, convened by President Theodore Roosevelt. The idea of a national advocacy organization was further strengthened by the presentation of an influential committee report by Carl Christian Carstens, Secretary and General Agent, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Boston. Carstens report was presented at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (NCCC) in 1915 in Baltimore, MD. His presentation was entitled: “Report of the Committee: A Community Plan in Children’s Work.”

In his opening statement to Conference participants, Carstens described the nature of the child serving problem: “The diversity of race, of social interests and of political development, which is almost the most important feature to be noticed when we come to examine carefully the political and social institutions of the United States, have led to a diversity in children’s laws and children’s institutions that is to the casual student and beginner in social work positively bewildering. While this diversity yields somewhat, upon more careful analysis, it is none the less so great that at the various conferences of this and other bodies, it would seem as though we were not all speaking the same language. Diversity of interests and of method are not always to be decried. A uniformity of method may be merely a dead uniformity, while a diversity of method may become a vital striving after standards and results that are alive to the needs of the day and successful in meeting them. For these many years diversity of method has been the most noticeable factor in children’s work in the various states, but long steps have been taken in the development of a national spirit, and our social institutions are beginning to feel an impetus leading them also to consider ways and means that are national in their form and scope if not federal in their scheme of organization.”

Carstens went on to describe the committee’s proposal: “In the development of children’s work in the United States, it is the opinion of many who have been active in one or the other phase of the subject, that the time has come for giving shape to some general plan which shall have gathered together the successful experiences of various states and cities, shall weave them into a harmonious whole and make it possible for those who are working at the development of our various institutions in our newer communities, or who are interested in reshaping the children’s institutions of the older states, to see what various forms of service it is necessary for communities to provide for the proper safeguarding of the children’s interests.”

Carstens stressed in his report that he was focusing children’s work to the care of (1) dependent, (2) neglected, (3) delinquent and (4) defective children. He concluded with this statement: “It is the hope of the Chairman of your Committee that this imperfect presentation may be the beginning of a more adequate statement and that out of this humble beginning there may come an impetus for a children’s charter with a series of drafts of laws consistent with each other, to which our various states may turn for direction when they are ready to take steps forward for the better care of the next generation.” (Source: National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings On-Line)

The Beginning: Following Carstens’ report, on May 17 representatives of fourteen child welfare organizations, while in Baltimore, agreed to establish a Bureau for the Exchange of Information among Child Helping Agencies (BEI). Five years later the executive committee of BEI, with the assistance of a grant from the Commonwealth Fund, agreed to organize their sixty-five members into a new national organization. C.C. Carstens was elected Director in September 1920 to head the new agency, to be known as the Child Welfare League of America. The organization was formally launched January, 2 1921 as a federation of approximately seventy service-providing organizations. (Note: A copy of the 1921 Constitution of CWLA is available at the Adoption History Project: )

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Note: The Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota has extensive records on the history of the CWLA; this summary is from its files.

Source: Child Welfare League of America Records. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN

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3 Replies to “Child Welfare League of America”

  1. David,
    While agree and support your sentiment wholeheartedly, please keep in mind that the work of every Child Protective Social Worker is enormously overwhelming, both physically and emotionally. Regardless of the state, every worker is subjected to impossible workloads and expectations, traumatic interactions that affect one’s personal functioning away from work and the abuses brought about by working within a highly political state system. Although the workers are assigned the responsibility for the decisions rendered in each case, please understand that every agent of the state is given directives and mandates from upper-level management- those who are not in working “in the trenches” & cannot see the direct impact of their decisions. It is not the workers who perform poorly, it is the system. The workers are blessed with dedication, patience and belief in their role to assist these families far beyond what the general public can even fathom. They do their jobs DESPITE the erroneous, uneducated opinions from those like yourself. So please Dave, if you want to help change the system, improve the quality of service and offer realistic options that will support the families receiving services, consider investing in the system. Become a volunteer, attend fundraisers, get licensed as a foster parent, go back to school & gain education in the “helping” fields, donate money. There are many ways you can become a helpful resource to the effort for change. Simply writing out a complaint in which you provide no support or suggestions for change is a self-serving act which accomplishes little toward the ultimate goal for improvement.

  2. Please do something about all these children ending up missing, beaten, sexually abused, and dead. It is happening all over America. Local Child Welfare Agencies are not doing their jobs. In fact, in some cases, like recently in NC, the agency was the problem. The Lord knows we don’t nee another federal law nor the feds getting involved but something has to be done. Local agencies are simply not doing what needs to be done. I know of a case worker who has arrested over again for DUI and she still works for the agency. The quality of workers is poor and there is no real supervision nor accountability. I am speaking for all the children in the foster care system. Please do something to bring about accountability in ever county of every state. Don’t let politicians nor county supervisors stop you. Thanks!

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