Skip to main content

Child Welfare League History 1915-1920

The Early History of the Child Welfare League of America

 1915 – 1920

By: Jack Hansan

Beginnings of the League:

The League had its beginning at the time of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (later known as the National Conference of Social Work) in Baltimore in 1915, when a group of executives from approximately 25 children’s agencies met together for the purpose of exchanging information and discussing the needs of the child-caring field. Out of this brief discussion came a cooperative association of child-caring agencies known as the Bureau for the Exchange of Information Among Child Helping Agencies.

In those early days, Dr. Henry W. Thurston (Instructor in Child Welfare of the New York School of Social Work) served as Chairman of the Bureau’s Executive Committee of which Dr. Hastings H. Hart of the Russell Sage Foundation, New York; Cheney c. Jones of the Cleveland Humane Society; George L. Jones, Superintendent of the Children’s Aid Society of Baltimore; Wilfred S. Reynolds, Superintendent of the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society; and C. C. Carstens, Executive Secretary of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Boston were the other members.

In 1918, and later, Miss H. Ida Curry, Superintendent, State Charities Aid Association, New York;* Mr. Marcus C. Fagg, Superintendent, Children’s Home Society of Florida, Jacksonville; Mr. John P. Sanderson, Jr., Executive Secretary, Connecticut Children’s Aid Society; and Dr. Frederic E. Knight, Superintendent of the New England Home for Little Wanderers**, Boston were added to the Executive Committee. Miss Curry, in 1918, was elected Chairman.

The Bureau, not having formal headquarters, arranged to hold its annual meetings at the time of the National Conferences in Social Work: in Indianapolis in 1916; in Pittsburgh in 1917 (at which time the hope was expressed that the Bureau might become self-supporting with the services of a full-time executive); in Kansas City in 1918; in Atlantic City in 1919; and in New Orleans in 1920.

As early as 1916, an inter-society service among the Bureau’s members was developed, and became one of the most valued services among member agencies. Instead of sending a representative to neighboring or distant parts of the country to make investigations of services to children, or to work out an essential agency problem, a member could call on another member agency with similar ideals and standards for such service. In those days, agencies represented a wide variety of children’s services, many were unsophisticated, and many more lacked staff skilled in children’s work. The Bureau’s usefulness to agencies was soon recognized, and requests for membership grew rapidly (from 14 to 43 the first year). It was at this time, in 1916, that the inter-society service voted that “Standards of Efficiency” should be required for any prospective members. Consequently, the development of efficient standards became the major program of the League and the test of membership among organizations affiliated with it.

In 1918, at the Annual Meeting of the Executive Committee in Kansas City, the question was raised as to the desirability of developing a national society in the Children’s field like the one in the family field, (i.e. the American Association for Organizing Charity, and to which Dr. Carstens was associated).  A statement for developing a national Bureau was drawn up with the hope that the Russell Sage Foundation might consider launching such an organization, but the Foundation was unable to reach a decision on the request in advance of the Annual Meeting in New Orleans in 1920 — and the newly organized Commonwealth Fund of New York which had also been approached rejected the request.  In the meantime, a committee of the National Children’s Home and Welfare Association (NCHWA)*** to which Rev. Hastings earlier, and Wilfred S. Reynolds later were associated, requested a closer cooperation between that organization and the Bureau….another possible avenue for a strong national organization of child helping agencies.  Therefore, it was decided at the New Orleans meeting that the possibility of working out a plan of expansion for the Bureau in conjunction with NCHWA be taken under consideration by a joint committee of the two organizations.

Then the unexpected happened. The Commonwealth Fund which had previously rejected the request of the Bureau, reconsidered its action and after a period of negotiations with the General Director and the Trustees of the Commonwealth Fund, Miss H. Ida Curry of the State Charities Aid Association of New York, and Chairman of the Bureau’s Executive Committee was notified on June 30, 1920, that the request of the Bureau had been granted, and an amount not to exceed $25,000. for one year had been appropriated. The Commonwealth Fund had also guaranteed support for three additional years with a sum not then fixed (but not to exceed $25,000. per year), with the expectation that during this period, efforts would be made by the Bureau to secure an increasing proportion of its income from outside sources.

At an Executive committee meeting of the Bureau held on August 4, 1920 in the offices of the New York State Charities Aid Association, a Resolution authorizing the acceptance of the grant from the Fund was passed, and a Nominating Committee was appointed to make nominations for the position of Director of a recognized national Bureau. The Nominating Committee presented the names of Wilfred S. Reynolds and C.C. Carstens to all member agencies (72 at the time) for a vote for either one of the two persons named, or for anyone else they might want named for the position.  Dr. Carstens obtained a majority of the votes, and the Executive Committee of the Bureau confirmed the choice of Dr. Carstens by unanimous vote on September 8, 1920.

Carl Christian Carstens, First Executive Director of the CWLA
Carl Christian Carstens, First Executive Director of the CWLA

On December 30, 1920 (at the conclusion of the Christmas Conference held at the Russell Sage Foundation Building in New York), the Bureau for the Exchange of Information met and the Constitution was presented. Article I was adopted as follows: “The name – The name of this organization shall be the Child Welfare League of America.” The rest of the constitution was held over for action at the next Annual Meeting to be held in Milwaukee, June 24, 1921. It was at the June meeting that a Constitution was adopted, and an Executive Committee and officers were elected.   H. Ida Curry was elected the first President of the Board of Directors of the new, unincorporated, Child Welfare League of America. Wilfred S. Reynolds, Vice-President; Miss Georgia G. Ralph (Department of Child Welfare, New York School of Philanthropy) Secretary; and Dr. Frederic H. Knight, Treasurer. The Russell Sage Foundation generously offered temporary office space for the League in its building at 130 East 22nd Street, New York, and on January 2, 1921, the Child Welfare League of America began functioning as a going concern with C. C. Carstens as its Director.

The Problems of Administering and Financing the Bureau:

For two years, from its beginning in 1915, the work of the Bureau had been carried on entirely by the bounty of the Child-Helping Department of the Russell Sage Foundation, which gave not only the half-time service of the Foundation’s secretary, Mr. C. Spencer Richardson, but defrayed all office and clerical expenses, including the publication of two editions of the Directory.

At the second annual meeting in Pittsburgh in June 1917, the future financing and administering of the Bureau was discussed. It was the sense of the meeting that as soon as practicable the Bureau should realize a logical and desirable development by becoming self-supporting and employing the full time service of a chosen chief executive, but that owing to the unusual financial demands upon children’s organizations due to the war, it was inadvisable to raise the question of a budget necessary for an independent organization at that time. The Russell Sage Foundation expressed its willingness to continue its service to the Bureau for a third year, but heartily supported the idea of complete financial independence for the Bureau. The membership voted, therefore, that the Executive Committee consider the question of a membership fee and report upon the advisability of this at the next annual meeting.

The First Step Toward Financial Independence:

At the third annual meeting in Kansas City in May 1918, Mr. C. Spencer Richardson who had served the Bureau as secretary for three years, resigned to take up war work in France. This necessitated facing squarely what the future of the Bureau was to be. Dr. Carstens suggested that the first order of business should be to decide whether the Bureau “should live or die” during the coming year, and it was unanimously voted that “we live another year.”

Several suggestions were brought forward·as to how the vote to “live another year” was to be made effective. The discussion simmered down to a choice between the Bureau’s conducting its own affairs on a cooperative basis, or endeavoring to find some outside organization to carry on its work for it. The result was a declaration of independence. The Executive Committee was given. full power to conduct the affairs of the organization during the coming year, and to levy upon constituent organizations an amount not to exceed $10. for necessary expenses. (Although a fee of $10. was authorized, only $5. was levied).

With Mr. Richardson’s resignation as secretary in 1918, the secretarial service was supplied by the New York School of Social Work through the Department of Child Welfare from 1918-1920. Other expenses were met by the membership fee.           Bills were paid by the Treasurer with the approval of the Chairman of the Executive Committee.

Accomplishments of the Bureau:

During its five years’ work, the Bureau for Exchange of Information for Child Helping Agencies:

1.  organized the sixty or more child welfare agencies throughout the country to agree to be part of the inter-society service in case work, and to help societies in other cities or states provide a more adequate service. A more prompt and fuller response to agencies’ needs was a result of this.

2.  collected and distributed material of interest to member agencies such as methods of financing (including financial appeals), materials for publicity to advertise the work of agencies, annual reports, case record forms, reports of studies.      The material was sorted and those that seemed most valuable to all were distributed.

3.  drew together various agencies from other fields for consultation on projects of joint interest, and helped in the shaping of state and local programs in child welfare.

Scope of the Work the Bureau Hoped to Undertake:

Upon receiving financial backing to support the national Bureau, a statement was drawn up by the Bureau and submitted to the Commonwealth Fund outlining some of the directions the Bureau thought it could develop. At that time, in August 1920, the membership of the Bureau included seventy-two (72) children’s agencies, sixty-eight of which were in the United States and four in Canada. The membership represented private societies that placed children in foster homes either free, at board, or for adoption; children’s protective agencies; and public departments of child care. The Bureau felt that this constituency was so representative of child welfare interests that the entire child welfare field could be influenced by any intensive work that the Bureau may undertake within this group.

Membership agencies varied widely in the readiness with which they broke up families, the care with which they studied the needs of individual children in preparation for placement in foster homes, the care with which they selected foster homes to meet those needs; the extent of supervision which they excercised over children who were placed out of their own homes; and the skill with which they effected the adjustment and absorption of these children into a normal community life. It was in such directions as these that the Bureau would endeavor to encourage the development of the best ideals and methods in the various agencies.

In the field of delinquency, it would be the province of the Bureau to stimulate prevention by assisting agencies that deal with potential delinquents and near delinquents to an understanding of  the individual and social factors that contribute to delinquency; and to help agencies develop better control methods. It was the belief of the Bureau that many so-called dependent or delinquent children were so because of the community’s failure to provide the necessary conditions for these children who required specialized care. It was the hope of the Bureau to train agencies to recognize the specialized needs of children such as the mentally “sub-normal or super-normal”, the physically handicapped, and children of unmarried parents. To develop appropriate methods for meeting the needs of these children, the Bureau intended to develop a field service comprised of skilled, professionals who were the leaders in children’s work.

Although many of the organizations who were members of the Bureau appeared to be doing fairly satisfactory work, they had such faulty methods of record-keeping that it was impossible for them to measure their progress or for different organizations to learn from the successes or failures of each other. Therefore, the Bureau felt it would be desirable to assist agencies in bringing about comparable methods of recording essential information in order that the experiences of the various agencies may be made available for the benefit of others.

It had been clearly demonstrated to the Bureau that some of the methods appropriate and effective in the care of children handicapped by destitution, neglect, lack of education or training, or in danger of becoming delinquent could also apply to “normal” children living in their own homes. The Bureau considered that it would be quite within its scope to awaken the interests of parents, schools, and citizens in making such methods more universally understood and in applying them more widely.

As larger resources would become available, the Bureau considered that it might well undertake certain lines of research (not otherwise provided for) which by reason of the Bureau’s strategic relationship to its member agencies would be peculiarly adapted to carry out. As a further contribution to the field of research, the Bureau would expect to encourage the kind of introspection by agencies themselves which would yield material of value to the field as a whole.



* Of which Mr. Homer Folks had once been Superintendent.

** Dr. Knight served as the first Treasurer of CWLA. He died suddenly in October 22 by complications following surgery for ptomaine poisoning, and Cheney C. Jones, in 1923, became Superintendent of the New England Home for Little Wanderers.

* ** The NCHWA was founded as the American Education Aid Society (AEAS) in 1883 in Bloomington, Illinois by Martin Van Buren Van Arsdale who had been trained as a minister, and who died in 1893. The Illinois Charter allowed the organization to find foster homes for destitute and dependent children.  By 1892, the organization had 10 state agencies which strengthed the home finding work. Each state had a board of directors of church and prominent community leaders, and now called itself the National Children’s Home Society (NCHS). Agents of the society traveled to communities soliciting funds, searching for orphaned children, and finding foster homes. The agents kept one-half of their solicitations as salaries, which earned a well-deserved outcry and criticism of the NCHS, particularly from the eastern social work circles. Nevertheless, the organization flourished in the midwest because the state services in Illinois did not include child placing, and NCHS through its work helped keep children out of almshouses – which was an important practice. By the mid 1890’s, Rev. Hastings Hart became the Superintendent of the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society, and was a leading advocate for professional work.  Due to many developments, the structure of NCHS was improved and considered the national leader in home finding work. It was voiced by some at the 1915 Annual Conference of Social Work in Baltimore that NCHS might be the national agency in the field the child-care workers were hoping for.  But by 1920, when the Bureau for the Exchange of Information became the aggressive leader in the field, many NCHS state agencies joined the League. Nonetheless, NCHWA (which.changed its name in 1917) survived feebly as a national child care agency.

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

For More Information: Visit the Child Welfare League of America’s website at

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. The Early History of the Child Welfare League of America. (2013). Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=9191.