Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

April 2012Vol. 13, No. 3Centennial Series: The Creation of the Children's Bureau

This is the ninth and final article in our first Centennial Series. This series addressed some of the social issues, practices, and policies that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau in April 1912. A new series, CB Decade-by-Decade, will premiere in May and examine the highlights from each decade of the Children's Bureau's first 100 years.

At the turn of the last century, the concept of children as economic necessities began to wane and was replaced by the idea that children had a right to a happy, healthy, and safe childhood. This budding attitude, combined with Progressive Era campaigns for government intervention in the nation's social struggles, raised the need for a Federal agency charged with protecting the welfare of America's children. After 9 years and 11 congressional bills, the Children's Bureau was created. Its early efforts laid the foundation for much of the research, initiatives, and programs that continue today. 

There were two main issues that led to the Bureau's creation: infant mortality rates and child labor. According to the 1910 U.S. Census, there were an estimated 2.2 million children under 1 year of age (U.S. Census Bureau, 1910). That year, there also were approximately 300,000 infant deaths (Lathrop, 1914). A study in 1907 found that more than 500,000 children were employed in industrial jobs, including in coal mines, textile mills, iron and steel works, and furniture, lumber, and glass factories (Lindenmeyer, 1997). In the early 20th century, the Federal Government had no stake in nurturing the development or protecting the well-being of the nation's children. Such work was primarily conducted by religious and philanthropic entities, until activists encouraged government engagement.

As early as 1900, Florence Kelley, a member of the National Consumers League who regularly spoke on child labor issues, proposed in her lectures a Federal Commission on Children. In 1903, Lillian Wald, founder of New York City's Henry Street Settlement, suggested to Kelley that the government establish a Federal Children's Bureau. Kelley brought the recommendation to Edward Devine, a trustee of the newly formed National Child Labor Committee and through whom Wald was able to get the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt (Bradbury, 1962). While the President promised his support, congressional approval was necessary. That road was neither short nor smooth.

The first bill to create the Children's Bureau was introduced in 1906, however, it never reached a vote. In 1908, another bill was introduced and passed out of committee. Nevertheless, it reached the same fate as the original bill, never seeing a final vote (U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, 1912). The turning point came in 1909 when the American Academy of Medicine (AAM) convened the first-ever infant mortality conference in New Haven, CT (Reynolds, 2007). That same year, President Roosevelt called for the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children and raised his support for the agency to new heights: 

"We have an Agricultural Department and we are spending $14 million or $15 million a year to tell the farmers, by the result of our research, how they ought to treat the soil and how they ought to treat the cattle and the horses, with a view of having good hogs and good cattle . . . it does not seem to be a long step or a stretch of logic to say we have the power to spend the money on a Bureau of Research to tell how we may develop good men and women" (Bradbury, 1962).

Over the course of 6 years, eight bills in the U.S. House and three bills in the U.S. Senate were introduced. Finally, a bill introduced in the 61st Congress by Senator William E. Borah passed the Senate on January 31, 1912, and the House on April 2 of the same year. President Taft signed it into law on April 9, creating the nation's—and the world's—first Federal agency whose exclusive focus was improving the lives of children and families. Its mission was to "investigate and report upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people." Its immediate task was to research infant and maternal mortality, followed by orphanages, juvenile courts, dangerous occupations, diseases of children, employment, and State and territory legislation affecting children (U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, 1912; Bradbury, 1962).

In the original bill, the Bureau was allocated an annual budget of $25,640 and permitted a staff of 15, including one Chief officer. Eight years before women won the right to vote in America, Julia Lathrop was appointed Chief of the Children's Bureau and became the first woman to head a Federal agency. Among her successes, she established new research efforts and led groundbreaking "baby saving" campaigns that helped to dramatically lower the nation's infant mortality rate.

One hundred years later, the Children's Bureau continues to work with States, Tribes, and territories to improve the overall health and well-being of our nation's children and families. With an annual budget of almost $8 billion, the Children's Bureau maintains its focus on rigorous research to inform practices that prevent child abuse and neglect, protect children when child abuse and neglect occur, and ensure every child has a permanent family or family connection.


Bradbury, D. (1962). Five decades of action for children, a history of the Children's Bureau. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, And Welfare. Social Security Administration. Children's Bureau. Retrieved from (8 MB)

Lathrop, J. (1914a). First annual report of the Chief, Children's Bureau, to the Secretary of Labor, for the fiscal year ended June 1913. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from (1MB)

Lindenmeyer, K. (1997). A right to childhood: The U.S. Children's Bureau and child welfare, 1912-46. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Reynolds, H. (2007). Public health and midwifery. In L. Ament (Ed.), Professional issues in midwifery (pp. 54–55). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers. Retrieved from  (1 MB)

U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor. (1912). Establishment of the Children's Bureau. Retrieved from (842 KB)