- The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Children’s Bureau
Who speaks for Joshua? An angry and frustrated Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun implicitly raised the question in 1989 in reviewing the case of Joshua DeShaney, whose parents had beaten him so badly that he was permanently disabled. 1 Although Blackmun’s question was rhetorical, most citizens then and today would be hardpressed to provide an answer. This was not always the case. During the first half of the twentieth century most Americans would have answered, the U.S. Children’s Bureau. Now, thanks to Kriste Lindenmeyer, associate professor of history at Tennessee Technological University, we can understand more clearly why Americans before 1950 assigned the care and protection of its most vulnerable citizens to a federal bureaucracy. Lindenmeyer’s signal achievement is to have written the best comprehensive study of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, “the first governmental agency in the world created solely to consider the problems of the child” (p. 30). Her tale is that of an institution that rose from humble beginnings to exercise considerable influence in the nation’s child welfare affairs before returning to its modest origins in little more than three decades.
The Bureau began in 1912 with a few employees, a miniscule budget, and a mandate to do nothing more than investigate and report on matters pertaining to the welfare of children. However, a succession of politically astute, reform-minded chiefs including Julia Lathrop, Grace Abbott, and Katharine Lenroot, built it into an extensive administrative empire controlling millions of dollars each year and overseeing hundreds of staff members. Within a decade of its founding, the Bureau had established itself as the nation’s leading expert on children. By 1946, when it was absorbed by the Federal Security Agency, the Children’s Bureau had pioneered in efforts to reduce infant and maternal mortality, improve child health, abolish child labor laws, identify the causes of illegitimacy, advocate care for children with “special needs,” and—perhaps its greatest achievement—make federal aid to dependent children a noncontroversial part of the nation’s duty. [End Page 606]
Lindenmeyer provides a detailed analysis of the Children’s Bureau’s early accomplishments. In the Progressive Era, as eugenicists alarmed the nation about the purported inherited characteristics of illegitimacy, criminality, and feeblemindedness, Children’s Bureau investigators empirically documented the relationship between low income and infant mortality, developing standards to reduce the number of infant deaths. Studies demonstrating that 80 percent of American mothers received little or no prenatal care led to the Bureau’s sponsorship of the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act, which provided federal funds to states to prevent infant and maternal mortality. During the same period, Bureau officials published forty-nine studies on illegitimacy, juvenile delinquency, child dependency, and mentally and physically disabled children. In general, the Bureau’s approach to these issues was conventional: it encouraged the expansion of state juvenile and family courts and supported mother’s pensions and foster care for most dependent children. Lindenmeyer is very critical of the Children’s Bureau efforts in these matters, concluding that “the aid it recommended for dependent children was inadequate, varied widely, and was burdened by cultural prejudices and moral judgments” (p. 161).
As the last statement suggests, Lindenmeyer does not shy from away from pointing out the Bureau’s failures. She agrees with Richard Meckel’s assessment that the Sheppard-Towner Act was “a defeat in victory”: although mothers became more aware of the dangers of infant and maternal mortality, the program itself fell far short of its objectives, administered as it was by miserly state officials and emasculated by the self-interest of physicians and public health officials. As a result, the national government’s role in these matters was mostly reduced to public relations. Even this small advance was not allowed to exist for long; in 1929, Congress repealed the law. Lindenmeyer also charts the Children’s Bureau...