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Public Protection of Children

June 25, 1924 — National Conference of Social Work, Toronto, Canada


The first invasion of Toronto by the National Conference took place in 1897 — evidently a happy occasion, for we have come again as the result of a cordial, not to say insistent, invitation from our Toronto members and what might be described as, for some people at least, a disconcertingly enthusiastic acceptance of your invitation by the Washington Conference. In 1897, as now, it was felt that coming to Canada made the meeting one of more than usual significance, and we shall all be groping while we are here for some means of expressing the respect and affection in which we hold Canada and Canadians. Last week I attended a meeting of state and provincial health officers; during the months to come trade unions and labor officials of the United States and Canada will discuss together, as we shall this week, common problems without the question of nationality ever being raised.

Although we have an international membership we nevertheless call ourselves a National Conference. Because the problems which we shall be discussing occur under different forms and with different manifestations in all nations and are universally national, perhaps it is accurate to describe ourselves as a National Conference of Social Work. We shall, I am sure, again and again thoughtlessly make exclusive reference to states instead of saying states and provinces, but you will, I am sure, appreciate that it is because we have so many years of association behind us that this meeting takes on none of the outward signs of an international membership. Our understanding makes it unnecessary. For we do speak the same language and our differences are a part of the very deep understanding which is ours. After last year’s successful celebration of our fiftieth anniversary, it seems necessary to make at least passing reference to the fact that we are beginning a new half-century with this conference. All of us are much more interested in the present, for which we are responsible, than we are in either the past or the future. But because of the fact that we are here, the twenty-fourth meeting in Toronto is in our minds. Alexander Johnson, who has initiated so many of us into the Conference, was president at that time and Hastings Hart was the Conference secretary. Both of these men and others who attended the 1897 meeting would agree, I think, that there have been no discoveries in the field of social relationships that could seem comparable to the automobile, the airplane, or the radio in the mechanical field; still there are differences — some of them only superficial and others as revolutionary as the developments in means of communication. Then we called ourselves the National Conference of Charities and Correction. We have since, by a change of name, tried to unload as belonging to the dead past all the mistakes we had made in the name of charity; and perhaps we are also trying with this new name to make ourselves believe that we have already arrived at the day when social justice and scientific social treatment make charity and correction unnecessary. In 1897 the standing committees, which correspond to the present divisions of the Conference, were: (1) on reports from states; (2) on organization of charity; (3) on child-saving; (4) on social settlements in cities; (5) on juvenile reformatories; (6) on care of the insane; (7) on care of the feebleminded; (8) on study of social problems in institutions of learning; (9) on municipal and county public charities; (10) on soldiers’ and sailors’ homes; (11) on prison reform.

One notices at once certain important omissions; health, mental hygiene, race relations, immigration, and economic problems were not among the subjects considered. Free public employment offices which had recently been established in Ohio as a result of trade-union agitation were discussed from the standpoint of preventing pauperism rather than as a means to general organization of the employment market. The discussion of what should be done for “tramps” indicated that poverty was still regarded by many as evidence of lack of moral stamina rather than as evidence of a badly organized industrial system. Excellent discussions of prison reform — the probation system, the indeterminate sentence, and the reasons for abandoning the county jail — make very painful reading because we have not made the progress we should in view of the fact that the principles have been understood and accepted by students of prison reform for so many years. Many of the same things will be resaid this week; some of them have already been said at the meeting of the National Probation Association. I wish we might feel that this year was to see conspicuous advances in the realization of that program.

Before I begin that annual performance known as the president’s address I want to make a word of explanation about the evening programs for the week. With only six evenings and ten divisions, your harassed Program Committee had to face the fact that it was no longer possible to pretend to follow the Conference tradition that a general evening session should be allotted to each division. Upon the authority of the Executive Committee we finally decided that any attempt to compromise with that tradition presented such serious difficulties that it seemed wiser to select from the suggestions made by the various divisions those general problems with which the entire Conference is concerned, and so far as possible to discuss them from the standpoint not of any one division but of the Conference as a whole. You will at once see some of the disadvantages in this plan and you may conclude that the difficulties of compromise with the traditions of the past must be more conservatively met in the future.

So far as your president’s address is concerned, you will have perceived that I have assumed that if I stuck to my present interests I would not do violence to the scheme. I beg of you, however, to suspend your judgment as to the success of the experiment until you have heard others that are not ex officio performers.

I have chosen to speak tonight on the subject of public protection for children not because I have a new program to offer but because, first, public provision is so fundamental in a child-welfare program, and second, in addition to the economic, social, and medical questions which may be involved in the decision as to whether or not a particular program should be undertaken, legal and political questions which enter into such discussions have been frequently raised but little discussed in recent years. Because of the very machinery of government, public action or failure to act affects profoundly the possibility of successful protection through individual or privately organized efforts. If we are to have not limited but universal provision for all children or for all members of any special group of children public aid must be enlisted. If a democratic community is committed to the policy of endeavoring to secure for all its children what the best and wisest parent wants for his own children, our efforts to realize this obligation must be continuous. What, if any, are the limitations we should put on the public service in a child-welfare program? In general social workers have been responsible for extensions of state activity in social welfare. But there has not always been unanimity about these extensions. There have been fields which some of our members have thought the public agency should not enter. There are others who believe that the eventual taking over by the public of practically all social work should be our object. Many of these people believe there is a real social gain in the recognition of a public obligation even though the scope of the work is not enlarged when it passes under public control, and the technique temporarily or even permanently is not so good as under private auspices. There are still others who have recognized in the question as to the claims of the public versus the private agency no theoretical limitations on action; they ask only as to expediency. I have decided to try to discuss very briefly some of the political questions which have arisen in the past whenever extension of public functions or what is usually described as “further centralization” has been involved in a program found socially necessary or desirable. The disagreement ten years ago as to mothers’ pensions brought forth some of these difficulties and showed important differences of opinion. Some thought it was a dangerous and far-reaching violation of an accepted and fundamental principle as to the division of work between public and private agencies.

The line of division most frequently urged by this group was that the public should provide institutional care but that relief in the home must remain a private function. Some saw in it the acceptance by the state of an unsound policy of relief for what they regarded as a sound policy of social insurance, which seemed to them to be a possible alternative. Others saw insuperable practical difficulties to successful administration of such laws. As so often happens, words in themselves proved a barrier to a meeting of minds, and when someone discovered that public aid for dependent children in their own homes and not family relief was the issue, there were those who changed from opponents to advocates. As you know, the decision in this case was overwhelmingly in favor of public action.

A little over ten years ago the first law was passed and the first aid or pension of this sort was granted. Perhaps as many as 50,000 children in the United States and Canada are now receiving aid, and millions of dollars are being expended annually in this effort to prevent a break-up of families or a reduction of the standard of family life below the margin of social decency because of the death or incapacity of the husband and father. The maximum numbers have not yet been reached; although laws have been passed in forty-two states and in five provinces in some of these, because of no appropriation, the law is only a gesture, and no child has benefited by it yet. In many localities the attempt has never been made to grant aid to all those who could be said to come within the terms of the law. But the numbers and amounts are already so large as to present, as only mass statistics can, the importance of preventing widowhood by reducing the death-rate from disease and from industrial and other accidents, and, when death does occur, by preventing dependency on either public or private assistance by increasing wages. We ought to be thoroughly committed to the doctrine that except in unusual cases the workingman should be able to leave sufficient means to provide for the care and education of his own children. All this involves a further extension of programs for public action to which we are already committed, as well as the complicated economic problem of raising the level of wages of the lowest-paid group of workers, as to which we are probably not agreed.

Education and health offer better examples of some of the questions involved than do mothers’ pensions. As soon as universal education instead of education of the few was accepted as a goal, free public schools became inevitable. But they were not established without a struggle. Those who opposed public taxation for education denounced its proponents as socialists, or as advocates of a dangerous kind of paternalism, but the complete answer was that universal education on any other basis was impossible. We have now a similar situation with reference to the health of children. If we set before us the ideal of reducing to the lowest possible level our present unnecessarily high infant mortality and of assuring real physical fitness for all children, public participation in the program becomes absolutely necessary. In its final analysis this is an extension of an educational program, for we look forward to making available for every father and mother and for every child information as to how to prevent disease and, of almost greater importance to parents, how to feed and clothe and train children so that they may know real physical and mental fitness as distinct from mere absence of disease.

In the face of some opposition and with more support we are going forward with this program. In every part of the country public programs are under way for promoting good prenatal care for mothers and scientific care for infants and for all children as they pass through the preschool and school periods and are later initiated into the working world. This may be denounced as socialized medicine, as the beginnings of state medicine, as a program supplied by Moscow, but to the real question: “Can the general health of all children be safeguarded by any other method?” there is no answer.

State or provincial versus local control. — Our political philosophy is grounded in fear. We have been taught that that government is best which governs least and that that government is least dangerous which is nearest to us. These are maxims which influence our thinking even though we do not accept them as true. Our history accounts in large measure for our belief in local responsibility; in social service it came not from our federal form of government, but by inheritance from England of the theory of parish responsibility for the poor of each parish. Although local responsibility has behind it much sound political reasoning, in the United States as well as in England it has frequently furnished the explanation of neglect and of shameful incompetence and inefficiency. England’s long struggle for centralized supervision began before our own. Ours has been won in discussion, but our practice still lags behind our theory in many parts of the continent. It may help in some present controversies if we remember that although there has not been much objection in recent years to this process of state “centralization,” as its opponents would call it, we owe that fact to the efforts of some who are here tonight and of others who belonged to an earlier generation of social reformers. We do not today hear people saying that the abandonment of the county insane asylum, the county jail, or the county poorhouse is a direct blow at the foundation principle of local responsibility in government. It was, however, exactly so denounced when Dorothea Dix began her agitation for state and national provision for the insane. Nowhere was this feeling of the importance of local government stronger than in Massachusetts, where Miss Dix began her work. But in the face of the facts which she presented political theories had to give way, and Massachusetts took the first steps toward state care of the insane.

In recent years, although our state governments have decreased in importance in most fields, they have assumed increasing responsibility in social work, and in the last few years state administrative machinery has been greatly improved, so that these new responsibilities are being more successfully met. State provision for dependent children by institutional or family home care, by payment of some part of the cost of mothers’ pensions, by the licensing and supervision of private agencies, by standardization of probation service, by assistance in the organization of county welfare boards and co-operation with such boards-these are only a few of the many examples that might be cited. The tendency in education has been along the same lines. Examination of teachers, prescribing curricula, and appropriating subsidies for reducing illiteracy, for training teachers, and for special types of education are usually accepted as a responsibility of the state government.
In the health field the states have been compelled to take the leadership. Assisting in carrying local health work until the local community is ready to take it over, as well as continuing state subsidies for special local activities, is becoming more general each year.
A new and genuine appreciation of the importance of rural work has given added impetus to this whole movement for the assumption of leadership by the state. No one sees any other method by which county-wide work can be initiated and carried on in the less populous and less wealthy counties. Even with taxation involving a sacrifice entirely out of proportion to that borne by the richer communities, such counties find the burden of adequate provision for the children’s education, health, etc., is too heavy to bear. Either we must give up the ideal of anything approximating equal opportunity for the child in the rural district and the small industrial and mining community and the child in the richer community or we must accept the principle of a wider taxing area and of central responsibility for the encouragement and development of a state-wide program. The necessity for rapid extension of education, health, and social service through state co-operation in countywide programs is clearly indicated. In institutional care the line of progress has been the permanent and complete taking over of what had previously been a function of the local government.

In other fields there has been no such loss of power or function in the local community; state action has been directed toward a more efficient functioning of the local community with reference to social welfare; and it is interesting to note that the new programs for mental hygiene and for the care of the physically handicapped follow the line of state co-operation with the local community rather than that of taking over the entire program. It is in this relationship that we have come to recognize a new kind of administrative skill — in educating the public along special lines, in supplying information as to successful methods of local work, in lending trained and experienced personnel, in co-operating in difficult case work, in transferring records of persons who move from one part of the state to another, and in supporting local offices against local selfish forces that would destroy or render inefficient the county program.

State inspection of private child-caring agencies and state responsibility for helping the counties work out their programs for preventing delinquency and dependency and for developing recreation as well as for the treatment and care of those who are already delinquent and dependent are already established in only a few states, but the case for state leadership in education, health, and social service has been made, and ours is the responsibility of making it a successful reality. The place of the national government in the program. — When it comes to the function of the national government, there are new complications. I think all of you would agree that the very important field of research and general education as to established principles of child care is recognized as the province of the federal government.

The old theory that matters of national interest should be the function of the federal government and those which are purely local should be locally settled is still unquestionably the rule to follow. But what is national, what is state, and what is purely local becomes a question of fact rather than of political theory or political traditions. Those who are opposed to the particular undertaking under discussion can always be counted upon to talk much about the fundamental political principles involved and very little about the end which is sought. But there are a few who favor the object sought, to whom the political changes seem so dangerous as to warrant opposition. As I have already suggested, there were those who prophesied the fall of the Republic when it was proposed that new types of work should be taken over by the state and the authority of local government was to be in any degree curtailed as well as when a proposal to increase or develop national functions was made. Although in many states local feeling has been as strong as state feeling, and geographic, economic, and social differences inside a single state are often as striking and as fundamental as the differences between any two states, this local community feeling has never been associated with a great struggle, and it finds expression in no familiar maxim which passes for thought and judgment. Geographic relationship and economic and social conditions have all greatly changed. The most remote state may be nearer Washington in means of communication and transportation than Buffalo was to Albany or Boston to Springfield at the time the Constitution was adopted. Economic lines of development everywhere cross the arbitrary boundaries of the state. The industrial district of which New York City is the center crosses the boundaries of four states; that of Chicago, three states; while in the industrial districts of St. Louis, Philadelphia, and many other cities, two states are included. The state in which an increasing number of men and women sleep and vote is not the state in which they work. We have come to recognize that local transportation problems of these and many other cities cannot be settled in either a single city or a single state. But the question as to whether education, health, or child labor present national problems is more frequently challenged.
That the welfare of children is a matter of more than local concern no one would challenge, since the future citizenship of the nation as well as of the individual state is always involved. Moreover, we have made a matter of national concern what has been happening to the children of Germany, Russia, Austria, and Armenia, as well as those of Belgium and Japan and Greece. Here in Canada, I may be reminded that most of the world has joined in an international effort to protect children. There can be no question of the existence of a national interest in the protection of childhood. But there are always two questions, first, whether the need of national action exists, and second, whether further if the need exists it is at the time practical to meet the need by national action.

In the promotion of the welfare and hygiene of maternity and infancy, Congress and forty-one states and the territory of Hawaii have found that the need exists and that as in the more recently developed administrative relationship of the state to the county, the method used strengthens rather than impairs the sense of local responsibility and increases the efficiency of local administrative agencies. Congress has three times declared for national action with reference to child labor — twice by statute and finally by a constitutional amendment submitted to the states for ratification. Each time co-operation with the states and not exclusive control has been the method chosen. Whether or not the states by ratification of the proposed amendment will agree as to the need for national action and as to the practical character of this remedy will be decided in the election of state legislators this autumn. Congress has not yet acted on the proposal of federal aid for general education, but that this proposal will be much discussed in the immediate future is clearly indicated. It is important in the discussions that are to come that we keep close to the facts. Is there a national need and, as a matter of practical administration, can it be met in the way suggested? No new national policy is involved. The same questions have been with us since 1781. The extreme states rights of the Articles of Confederation were promptly found to have a disastrous effect on business. From 1791 to the present, extensions of national authority which promoted commerce and agriculture have been made and will continue to be made as new conditions arise or as new understanding of old conditions develops. Extension in the social welfare field is therefore only a part of a developing tendency. We are not guided by the past in our social thinking. We cannot be guided by the past in the adaptation of political machinery to social needs not understood nor given recognition at the time that machinery was set up. We shall have to do our own thinking and assume responsibility for what we do or fail to do for the children of the present. Our political forefathers showed both courage and independence; our pioneers in social reform have lacked neither vision nor courage. I think no one of us prefers to forget our own responsibilities in satisfaction over the qualities that they displayed.

I cannot leave the question of public protection of children without saying something about the factor on which the success of any program depends — a properly qualified personnel. At the meeting of the Conference here in Toronto in 1897 in what was perhaps the most significant paper of all those presented, Mary Richmond discussed the need of a training school of applied philanthropy. In it she set forth the imperative need of more and better training for the tasks which the social worker was undertaking to perform in the community and outlined with convincing concreteness the possible curriculum and the field of work, as well as the relationship which such a school might sustain to the university or college as well as to social agencies. Although Miss Richmond’s conclusions were challenged by some, it was only a short time before a beginning was made in meeting this new educational need. Today we have graduate and undergraduate schools giving general and specialized training. We have also, as I am sure all of you know, an organization of social workers which is trying to develop a professional attitude among ourselves and toward ourselves. There is, however, only one way by which these advancing standards can find permanent place in the public service, and that is through a recognition of the merit principle in appointment. The universal experience is that the merit principle is made certain in the public service by civil service and by civil service only. I am led to speak of this for several reasons. In the first place, in spite of years of agitation, the need is still not met. In a recent article in the annals of the American Academy, the executive secretary of the American Association of Social Workers states that “only four of the twenty-five states reporting have all or any part of the social work classified under civil service.” A scientific classification of employees is the basis of an efficient working of the merit principle. Federal employees found their prophecies fulfilled when that important function was not given to the Federal Civil Service Commission which for nearly half a century with increasing effectiveness has protected the service from the politician and co-operated in raising the standards of admission to the service. At last year’s conference it was said that one could no more choose a social worker by means of a civil service examination than a man could choose his wife by that method. That this conclusion involved a fundamental misconception of the task of the social worker and also of the progress that has been made in the administration of civil service, I do not need to point out to you. Some good public officials, it is true, prefer the dangers of politics to what they think are the uncertain means of determining real fitness which a civil service examination offers.

In many states and local communities, the civil service laws are badly drawn or poorly administered. This cannot be accepted as a reason for regarding civil service as a failure any more than we would advocate a return to employers’ liability because a workmen’s compensation law was badly drawn or administered. In the federal service we use now very commonly what is known as the non-assembled examination in which the applicant’s education and experience are rated and an oral examination determines those qualities which only a personal interview can determine. I know of no better basis of choosing a properly qualified person than education, experience, and personal adaptation for the work. Under civil service all of the requirements for different types of service can be worked out as carefully as in the best-organized personnel bureaus; the only restriction on the civil service is that these standards once set up cannot be changed while the examination is in progress.

What is the alternative to this method of selection? Every year some state or local community in which the tradition of the merit system has seemed to put the public service on a sure foundation has seen the work for children sacrificed to selfish ambitions — sometimes of one party and sometimes of another. At the meeting held in Toronto in 1897 a committee was appointed to investigate and report upon the subject of “Politics and Public Institutions.” At the next meeting in New York in 1898, Dr. Henderson, who was chairman of the committee, reported on the results of a questionnaire sent out to all the states. Information was obtained which he described as “in no case exhaustive.” To quote Dr. Henderson’s words: A startling yet very natural revelation of the tendency of the “spoils system” came out in our correspondence and showed that system to be what it is — a system of terrorism, under which the best and bravest men quail. In almost every instance we have been in honor obliged to omit the names of our informants and even the states from which our knowledge comes. Conditions have improved since that time. But we ought to have no false sense of security. Responsible executives in most places are not appointed through civil service, and the work is not secure when it is only the subordinate positions in which the merit system prevails. I do not mean to say that we have not had excellent political appointees who have done much to advance the programs in which we are all interested. But these advantages we could secure on a more dignified basis through the civil service. Whether or not we extend the field of public service, it is already so important that one of the tasks that we have always with us is to protect and at the same time to raise our standard of public administration. This is especially important in the case of public child-caring agencies because of the peculiar helplessness of all children and especially of the groups of children so frequently intrusted to the care of the state. Moreover, the problems of child welfare are so varied and so fundamental that only when our ideal of public administration becomes a reality can we hope to do for children what we should. Finally, as I close, I want to explain to our Canadian friends why some of our members, especially those who have been for years leaders in the Conference, feel that our coming to Canada presents a very special opportunity and obligation. Those who come from the East and the more congested centers of the Middle West are eager to put their experience at your disposal. They have in mind not so much Toronto as the great stretches west of Toronto. Investigation would show, I think, that they have the same yearning solicitude with to those parts of the United States which were only yesterday the homes which the pioneers wrested from the wilderness of prairie and mountain. They have it for the South, in which development along social lines has been delayed by causes with which we are all familiar. Believing that the trial-and error method in social work should become a thing of the past, they would like to see others learn by their mistakes. They hope to see measures undertaken by you which will render much of the work they are now doing unnecessary; that measures not only for the prevention of social disease of one kind and another but for the creation of a new standard of social welfare may be made the basis of your work. They do not ask you to follow them; on the contrary, they suggest that you avoid following them and profit by the costliness in human welfare which failure to build on the basis of the community’s responsibility for health and social welfare has meant in the lives of the children for whom they are responsible.

Our history indicates that as a rule great steps forward usually come in a new community, or one in which the field has been so long uncultivated that it might be classified as virgin soil. The great advance which the Middle West made in its provisions for education is a conspicuous example. Encouraged by a federal subsidy, for the first time in the history of the world a really comprehensive educational program was established. It supplemented the local elementary and secondary schools with free college, technical, and professional training and an extension service for the whole state and especially for the farmers. This program has become an integral part of the conception of public provision for education west of the Alleghany Mountains. All of this was done during the recurrent periods of agricultural depression and through the payment of taxes which involved greater sacrifices than the same provisions would have required in the richer Atlantic Coast states. It was based on what is the best conception of the reason for public provision and that is that the path of economy is co-operation of all the people in providing and in controlling the services which are in general needed by all. The heavily endowed school or agency does not exist in such communities; but it is one of the characteristics of frontier life that the people feel themselves adequate to the performance of any task of whose importance they have become convinced. And we hope that the frontier habit of thought is still ours and yours. Those who come from congested centers are eager to see the constructive imagination of the West turned toward community health, toward provision of real homes for all children, toward prevention of dependency and delinquency, as it was toward education at the time when those great advances in our conception of education were in the making. With that done it would still be necessary to draw on the experience of those older communities in which because of numbers greater specialization is possible and in consequence the value of experiments can be more readily determined and where the very pressure of immediate needs leads to the discovery of new methods and new resources.
We are grateful to the older communities in which during a period of years the standard of care and the extent of the service have steadily developed. We are learning also from other communities whose beginning shows as early a date but in which the development of a social program has been delayed, which are now furnishing new examples in state leadership and in administrative machinery. Out of the older communities comes the movement which is born of compassion for the needless and cruel suffering of children; out of the newer communities comes the faith in the realization of that new day for children to secure which the pioneer turned his face toward the West. One seeks to correct existing injustices, to overcome the apathy and inhibitions which devotion to tradition creates, to correlate the efforts of many toward a single object; the other requires creative imagination for the utilization of the opportunity of building anew with the right social perspective and with the place of the child in the future of the state fully recognized.



Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press for the National Conference of Social Work) 1924, pp. 3-14.