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On Establishing a Federal Children’s Bureau

January 26, 1909 — Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, Board Room, District Building, Washington DC


Although the National Child Labor Committee stands sponsor for the bill introduced into Congress for the establishment in the Department of the Interior of a Children’s Bureau, the Committee can no longer claim sole guardianship of this measure, nor would it indeed desire to do so.

Two and three days ago, twenty-five thousand clergymen in these United States proclaimed once again from pulpits of all creeds the eternal message of the value of the child, outlined to their hearers the modern conception of childhood’s claim upon society and the obligations to the child of a society which has prospered by all the results of a progressive civilization. They asked their congregations, whether Jew or Gentile, to consider and support this effort to bring the child into his heritage of this civilization. And not only have the twenty-five thousand clergymen and their congregations shown their desire to participate in furthering this bill, but organizations of many diverse kinds have assumed a degree of sponsorship that indicates indisputably how universal has been its call to enlightened mind and heart. The national organizations of Women’s Clubs, the Consumers’ Leagues throughout the country, college and school alumnae association, societies for the promotion of special interests of children, the various state Child Labor Committees, representing in their membership and executive committees, education, labor, law medicine and business, have officially given endorsement. The press, in literally every section of he country, has given the measure serious editorial discussion and approval. Not one dissenting voice has it been possible to discover — not one utterance contradicts the principles that have been laid down by these various representatives of humanitarian thought and unselfish patriotism throughout America, and which values they believe the bill will advance, or that within its scope lie potentialities for such broadening .

It may be, at first, something of a shock to hear of taking the child out of the realm of poetry and pure sentiment into the field of scientific, organized care and protection; but only to the superficially sentimental could it appear that the poetry and purity of childhood might be sacrificed by using all the fruits of modern thought, study, experience and knowledge to their advantage — “Even the least of these.” What would the Bureau do? What measures for the advantage of the child, the future citizen and the country would the Bureau further? What innovations in governmental functions would the Bureau introduce? These are pertinent questions that may well be asked, and which must be answered to the satisfaction of the men in both Houses of Congress before we shall have the right o ask them to vote for its creation. The Bureau would be a clearing house, a source of information and reliable education on all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life, and especially it would investigate and report upon the questions now nowhere answered in complete or unified form, and whose enormous importance to national life is so strikingly evident.

It would fix upon government the responsibility. The attitude now is not unlike the small boy’s of whom my friend in New York tells. He had told him of the story of Nero. The brutality of the monster was vividly related; how he slew his mother, how he played while Rome burned, etc., etc. The boy showed no concern and to draw hi out my friend said, “Well, what do you think of that kind of a man?” “He never done nothin’ to me,” quoth the boy, with a shrug.

The Bureau would investigate legislation affecting children in the several states and territories, and all other facts that have a bearing upon the health, the efficiency, the character, the happiness and the training of children. Orphanage has many aspects that should call out the wisdom of the sages. Perhaps not enough has been done. Perhaps, in some respects, too much. The orphan is a child and orphanage means to some people, even now, the commitment to an asylum, the child lost in the obsession to an institution. Many are like the pious philanthropist who prayed, “Oh Lord, send us many orphans, that we may build the new wing to the asylum.”  Nothing would the Bureau do to duplicate any work now being done by state or federal government, but it would strengthen this work and bring into immediate usefulness all of the statistical facts that may lie in the treasure-house of any governmental department or any private association. Practical co-operation of this kind, based on intelligent sympathy, has already been assured by the far-seeing chief of the Educational Bureau and the head of the Census Bureau. As much of the results of their researches as would enrich the Children’s Bureau would be laid before it almost without the asking, and yet, important as is their information and their knowledge, it covers only a part of what pertains to the whole great question of the wisest and most enlightened guardianship of our children — the most valuable natural asset of our nation. Literally the Education Bureau is the only thing that has been established by the government which could be directly construed for the children, — from which it might be said that we as a nation are indifferent.

The Children’s Bureau would not merely collect and classify information, but it would be prepared to furnish to every community in the land information that was needed, and diffuse knowledge that had come through experts’ study of facts valuable to the child and to the community. Many extraordinarily valuable methods have originated in American and have been seized by communities other than our own as valuable social discoveries. Some communities in this country have had more or less haphazard legislation, and there is abundant evidence of the desire to have judicial construction to harmonize and comprehend it. As matters now are within the United States, many communities are retarded and hampered by the lack of just such information and knowledge, which, if the Bureau existed, could be readily available. Some communities within the United States have bee placed in most advantageous positions as regards their children, because of the accident of the presence of public spirited individuals in their midst who have grasped the meaning of the nation’s true relation to the children, and have been responsible for the creation of a public sentiment which makes high demands. But nowhere in the country does the government, as such, provide information concerning vitally necessary measure for the children. Evils that are unknown or underestimated have the best chance for undisturbed existence and extension, and there where light is most needed, there is still darkness. Ours is, for instance, the great nation which does not know how many children are born and how many die in each year within its borders; still less do we know how many die in infancy of preventable diseases; how many blind children might have seen the light, for one-fourth of the totally blind need not have been so had the science that has proved this been made known in even the remotest sections of the country.

Registration and our statistics on these matters are but partial, and their usefulness is minimized by the unavoidable passage of time before their appearance. There could be no greater aid to the reduction of infant mortality than full and current vital statistics of children, such as no one community can obtain for itself, and for want of which young lives, born to be valuable to society, are wasted. We realized only occasionally, or after the occurrence of some tragedy, how little is known of other important incidents of the children’s lives. We can not say how many are in the jails or almshouses, though periodically the country is stirred by some newspaper report such as that of the little boy of twelve sentenced to five years in a federal penitentiary, or that of a little boy confined to some months upon a trivial charge and incarcerated with a murderer, and other evil men and women, in the cell of a county jail. Outside the few states which have juvenile courts, there is chaos in the treatment and punishment of difficult children, and largely because of lack of knowledge concerning this important matters. This information can not be effectively obtained by private agencies. It is too vital to be left to that chance. Only the federal government can cover the whole field and tell us of the children with as much care as it tells of the trees or the fishes or the cotton crop!

I remember that some three years ago, when it was our pleasure to bring this suggestion before the President [Theodore Roosevelt], his first expression of approval was, if I recall rightly, that “It is bully.” It was a coincidence that the Secretary of Agriculture was departing that same morning for the South to find out what danger to the community lurked in the appearance of the boll weevil. That brought home, with a very strong emphasis to the appeal, the fact that nothing which could have happened to the children would have called forth such official action on the part of the Government.

What measures for the advantage of the child and the country would the Bureau further? No direct responsibility or administrative function for furthering new measures would fall upon the experts of a Children’s Bureau, but proceeding by the experience of other scientific bodies there would be ample justification for employing the best minds of the country for the application of the knowledge gained, by using the stimulus of suggestion and education. It takes no stretch of the imagination to believe that, with the light of knowledge turned by responsible experts upon all phases of the problem of the child, the American people could be trusted, if not with the immediate solution, then with serious consideration, for what appears to be a national apathy is not really so in fact. What innovation in the government function would this introduce? This measure for the creation of a Children’s Bureau can claim no startling originality. It would introduce no innovation — no new principle — in the function of government. It is along the line of what we have been doing for many years to promote knowledge on other interests, on material matters. Look carefully into the history of the development and present scope of the various bureaus within the authority of the Government, and ample and fascinating analogies will be found.

Other countries, too, have awakened to realize the import of efficient guardianship of their children, have gathered expert information and are using it under the leadership of trained specialists. The French call this development “Child Culture,” which implies the use of scientific minds and trained powers, co-ordinated functions, and the protection of the state to the end of efficient manhood through a well guarded childhood. Current literature every day shows the trend of civilized people to fix the responsibility upon the present generation to preserve and cultivate its resources, indeed charging as a crime against us any reckless waste of these. The English children’s bill, that within a day or two has become “An Act,” is the best example of this as regards the children. That bill is a most remarkable document indeed, covering practically every incident in the child’s life that might come within the concern of the Government. Its ninety folio pages constitute a complete code, and reflect not only the wide range of the government’s information, but cover every interesting phase of the development of this vital, social and economic matter. A “Veritable children’s charter,” it has been called. The forms of the English government and ours differ. We do not desire the code; details and administration can be left to the states; but we do desire and we most urgently need information ,ad the best means of broad publicity on all matters relating to the children, that the national intelligence and conscience may be stirred. The full responsibility for the wise guardianship of these children lies upon us. We cherish belief in the children, and hope, through them, for the future. But no longer can a civilized people be satisfied with the casual administration of that trust. Does not the importance of this call for the best statesmanship that our country can produce? I ask you to consider whether this call for the children’s interests does not imply the call for our country’s interest? Can we afford to take it? Can we afford not to take it? For humanity, for social well-being, for the security of the Republic’s future, let us bring the child into the sphere of our national care and solicitude.



Source: Proceedings of the Conference on the Care of Dependent Children Called by President Theodore Roosevelt to Meet at Washington, D.C., January 25-26, 1909.


Also: Senate Documents, 60th Congress, 2d Session, December 7, 1908 — March 4, 1909, in 23 Volumes, Vol. 13, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1909), pp. 201-206.