Skip to main content

Carstens, Carl Christian

Carl Christian Carstens  (April 2, 1865 – July 4, 1939): First Executive Director Child Welfare League of America

By: Emma Octavia Lundberg


Carl Christian Carstens 1865 - 1939
Carl Christian Carstens
1865 – 1939
Photo: Child Welfare League of America

C.C. Carstens was born in Germany. When he was a young boy, his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Davenport, Iowa. Carstens graduated from Iowa College (now Grinnell) in 1891 and for several years taught school in nearby Iowa towns. In 1900, Carstens was awarded a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania; and in 1903 he received his Ph.D. For the three years he lived in Philadelphia, Carstens was on the staff of the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity, an agency directed by Mary Richmond. Later in 1903, Dr. Carstens moved with his wife and three children to New York City. Until 1907, he was assistant director of the New York Charity Organization Society. He then moved his family to Boston and assumed the position of Secretary and General Agent, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

In the thirteen years Dr. Carstens directed the Massachusetts Society he became nationally recognized as a fearless crusader for children’s protection and a spokesperson for the growing array of child caring agencies and institutions. Dr. Carstens was a member of the Program Committee of the 1909 White House Conference on Dependent Children and was far ahead of his time as a firm believer in the development of public as well as private activities on behalf of children. Under his guidance MSPCC established 27 branches throughout the stat thereby greatly expanding the state’s efforts to protect and safeguard children from abuse and neglect. He also increased the agency’s emphasis on remedial action and services designed to promote a child’s wellbeing through the strengthening of family life. In recognition of his expertise and commitment to child advocacy, Dr. Carstens was invited to be the chair of a national committee charged with designing “A Community Plan in Children’s Work.”

His Committee report was presented in 1915 at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (NCCC) held in Baltimore, MD. Carstens paper: “Report of the Committee: A Community Plan in Children’s Work” is universally recognized as the seedbed for creating a national child welfare advocacy organization. In his presentation, Carstens said: “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.

Dr. Carstens concluded his presentation with this challenge to the participants: “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)

After Dr. Carstens presentation, and while still in Baltimore, 17 representatives of fourteen child welfare organizations agreed to establish the 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. In September 1920, C.C. Carstens was elected to be Director and head this new agency, to be known as the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA).

During his early years as director of CWLA, Dr. Carstens spent time making inspection trips of institutions and orphan organizations throughout the country and in Canada, and he found a dearth of intelligent services for children. He spent many days in agencies to help them define their functions and to help organize the internal workings of the societies more efficiently. His work took one day in some areas and a week in others because his technique was not to talk to agencies about what needed to be done, but to stay with them and show them how to do it. In addition, he lectured on children’s work at universities and encouraged social work training courses at state conferences. He also worked with other national organizations, attended conferences of probation officers and judges and familiarized himself with states’ legislation for the care and protection of children.

Once Dr. Carstens had an understanding of the country’s need, work with the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors was begun to adopt a statement of its purposes, and a list of the various services it would offer. This task was completed by 1923-24 and it read:


1. Securing a better understanding of child welfare problems and of the means of their solution.
2. Development of better standards and methods in different forms of work with children, first among its members, and then in the country at large.
3. Intensive study of certain fields of children’s work, making available the results of such study and of other valuable investigations in these fields.
4. Assisting groups of citizens to plan their work for children so as to bring the largest measure of good returns.”


1. Field Service: without intensive study, for making constructive criticism, suggesting extension of service, co-ordination with other work in the community, additional personnel, and interpretation of new developments in work with children.
2. Studies of Single Agencies: to suggest improvements within the agency or better alignment with the needs of the community.
3. Community Planning in Children’s Work: through Councils of Social Agencies or Financial Federations or Chests to meet community needs.
4. Assistance to Non-Social Service Groups: such as fraternal orders, civic clubs, religious bodies, or other groups of citizens who wish to undertake work with children.
5. Inter-Society Service: in the exchange of casework, and of publicity and financial plans.
6. International Exchange: in casework with agencies in the principal European countries.
7. Country-wide Information and Correspondence Service: on the status and needs of child welfare work in the various states and cities.
8. Loan Library: for members, of carefully selected books and pamphlets on child welfare.
9. Publication: of a monthly bulletin, and valuable articles in occasional bulletins, free to members, at cost to others.”

(Source: Emily Gardner, “History of the Child Welfare League of America,” 1977, unpublished manuscript found in Box 93, Folder 5, Child Welfare League of America Records, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota)

The next five or six years were devoted to these purposes and services. Under Dr. Carstens leadership, the League developed consistent child-caring tools to help agencies not only with their internal operations and methods, but to help each agency define its field of activity more definitively in order’ that each might render the service to the community for which it was best equipped. Dr. Carstens wanted all member agencies to shape up and get a minimum program under way that would make each member agency respectable and worthy of the confidence of the community and the giving public.

In very early years, institutions and orphanages were the predominant method of care. Dr. Carstens was an early supporter of foster family care and contributed to the trend from free homes to paid boarding homes for children. Dr. Carstens was against institutional care for children, believing all children should be in a family setting and preferably in their own home. Later, he realized the need for the kind of care institutions could provide to some children, and in 1923 the League included institutions for children in League membership.


Editor’s Note:  Below is another brief description of C.C. Carstens from the records of the Child Welfare League of America

LEAGUE YEARS: 1921-1939

 The Director: (January 1, 1921-July 4, 1939) — Dr. Christian Carl Carstens, known as C.C. to all but his personal friends, to whom he was called Carl, was born in 1865. He came to the United States from Germany with his parents when he was a young boy. He was raised and educated in Iowa, and was graduated from Grinnell College. For a number of years he taught in Iowa high schools, then attended the University of Pennsylvania where he received a Ph.D. in 1903.   When he had completed these studies, he became a member of the staff of the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity, of which Mary E. Richmond was then the head. Later, he joined the staff of the New York Charity Organization. Edward T. Devine was its General Secretary. For many years he was the Executive Secretary of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Boston, and was instrumental in making that agency a state-wide organization which placed its emphasis on constructive services to strengthen and maintain family ties. He was unrelenting in his efforts to safeguard children from neglect by parents and to stamp out conditions in communities that threatened the moral or physical welfare of children.

Dr. Carstens became Director* of the Child Welfare League of America on January 1, 1921, and remained with the League until his sudden death on July 4, 1939.   (The cause of death seems not to be recorded, but Dr. Carstens health problems caused him to resign on June 22, 1939 at the League’s Annual Meeting in Buffalo, New York. His resignation was to have taken effect on October 1, 1939).

In the March 1947 issue of the Social Service Review, it was said of Carstens:

” C. C. Carstens was an interpreter of the needs of dependent children.  Perhaps no other person concerned with child welfare had such an intimate knowledge of child-caring institutions and agencies throughout this country or could count among his devoted friends so many of the heads and staff members of these organizations.  He seemed to have been intended by nature for an academic career. But just as he was endowed with an ardent love of fine music, so he had an instinct which grew into a passion for service which would lighten the burden of children who were neglected, dependent, or physically handicapped, and make available to them the opportunities which should be the heritage of all children. He had a scholar’s interest in thoroughness and precision of facts and an artist’s genius in interpreting dull figures and somber realities so that they reflected the experiences and deprivations of individual children.  All his life he remained the careful, earnest seeker after truth, a person not afraid of shifting position when new light dawned.  He was an omnivorous reader, and many weary hours spent in day coaches during his almost constant travels from state to state and from city to city throughout the country were lightened by the latest novel or the current book on history or economic problems. Those who knew him intimately knew the breadth and the balance of his many interests and marveled at the singleness of purpose and the intimate knowledge of  conditions which he displayed when in conference with a community group or an institution head or a social worker seeking advise. To have been associated with him in his work for children was an education and a constant inspiration.”

Others knew of him as a loving and devoted husband and father; still others saw him as a dynamic force in all four of the White House Conferences on Children. He was a member of the 1909 Conference on Dependent Children. In the 1919 Conference on Child Welfare Standards. Carstens was a member of the Program Committee of the 1909 White House Conferences on Children. He was far ahead of his time as a firm believer in the development of public as well as private, activities in behalf of children. In the 1919 White House Conference, much of which was devoted to child welfare standards, Dr. Carstens worked especially on the statement with regard to standardization of children’s laws — a subject that had long interested him. In 1929, Dr. Carstens was appointed by President Hoover to Chair the Section on Physically and Socially Handicapped Children in preparation for the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection.  Four of the volumes issued by this Conference were the result of the work of those committees studying, under Dr. Carstens general direction, the following subjects: state and local organizations for the physically and mentally handicapped; dependency and neglect; and juvenile delinquency. During his last year of life, he served actively on program committees in preparation for the 1940 White House Conference on Children in a Democracy, and his death meant a great loss to that body.

In 1929, Dr. Carstens was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to Chair the Section on Physically and Socially Handicapped Children in preparation for the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. Four of the volumes produced by this Conference were the result of the work of those committees studying, under Dr. Carstens general direction, the following subjects: state and local organizations for the physically and mentally handicapped; dependency and neglect; and juvenile delinquency. At the time of C.C. Carsten’s death in 1939, membership of the League consisted of 168 members and 191 associates.

Dr. Carstens also represented the United States as a Delegate at two child welfare Pan-American Congresses: at Rio de Janeiro in 1922, and in Havana, 1927.

* The chief executive’s title was changed to Executive Director on May 7, 1928, the date the League was incorporated.

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

For additional and more current information about the CWLA, visit:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Lundberg, E. (2011). Carl Christian Carstens (April 2, 1865 – July 4, 1939): First Executive Director Child Welfare League of America. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from