100 years of the U.S. Children’s Bureau

Throughout its 100-year history, the Children’s Bureau –  the first federal agency within the U.S. government—and in fact, the world—to focus exclusively on improving the lives of children and families – has worked to assist children and youth in foster care; engage youth in decisions that affect their lives; and support foster families, kinship caregivers, child welfare professionals, and others who help these children.

At the turn of the last century, conditions for children in America looked very different from today. More than 1 in 10 infants did not survive their first year. Many children left school to help support their families, often working in dangerous conditions. Orphans were crowded into large institutions, where they received little care or attention.

Lillian D. Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, and her friend Florence Kelley are credited with conceiving the idea for a Federal agency to promote child health and welfare in 1903. Impressed with the idea, a friend of Wald’s wired President Theodore Roosevelt, who promptly invited the group to the White House to discuss it further. The journey to create the Children’s Bureau had begun.

Many years of nationwide campaigning by individuals and organizations followed. Eleven bills, eight originating in the House and three in the Senate, met with failure between 1906 and 1912. In 1909, President Roosevelt convened the first White House Conference on Children. This meeting brought together social workers, educators, juvenile court judges, labor leaders, and other men and women concerned with children’s well-being, who collectively endorsed the idea of a federal Children’s Bureau.

In 1912, Congress passed the Act creating the Children’s Bureau and charged it “to investigate and report . . . upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people.” President William Howard Taft signed the bill on April 9, 1912. The bill included an initial appropriation of $25,640.

  • Before the creation of the Children’s Bureau in 1912, child welfare and foster care were mainly in the hands of private and religious organizations.
  • In 1919, the Children’s Bureau published Minimum Standards of Child Welfare, which affirmed the importance of keeping children in their own homes whenever possible and, when that was impossible, providing a “home life” with foster families.
  • In 1923, the Children’s Bureau published Foster-Home Care for Dependent Children, an acknowledgment of the growing preference for foster family care over institutional care.
  • During World War II, when more than 8,000 children were evacuated from Europe to the United States, the Children’s Bureau oversaw their temporary placement in U.S. foster homes.
  • The Children’s Bureau published a draft list of “The Rights of Foster Parents” in the May 1970 issue of its journal Children. That same year, the Children’s Bureau sponsored the National Conference of Foster Parents.
  • In 1972, the Children’s Bureau sponsored—and President Nixon proclaimed—National Action for Foster Children Week to raise awareness of the needs of children in foster care and recruit more foster parents. The following year, Children published “The Bill of Rights for Foster Children.”
  • In 1988, President Reagan issued the first presidential proclamation that established May as National Foster Care Month.

The National Foster Care Month website shares techniques and strategies that support foster parents’ efforts to strengthen families, keep children connected, and promote a sense of normalcy for youth while they’re in foster care. Learn more here.

“There are few things more vital to the welfare of the Nation than accurate and dependable knowledge of the best methods of dealing with children…” – President Theodore Roosevelt.

Did You Know?

There are currently more than 400,000 children in foster care in America.

29% are in relative homes and 46% are in non-relative foster family homes.

51% of children in foster care are reunited with their parents or primary caregivers, and 21% are adopted.

Over 1/3 of youth in foster care are age 13 or older.