• June 2011
  • Vol. 12, No. 5

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Centennial Series: The Advent of Modern Social Work

This is the second article in our Centennial Series, as we count down to the Children's Bureau's 100th anniversary next year. These articles address some of the social issues, practices, and policies at the turn of the last century that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau.

The recognition of social work as a profession and practice in America might be dated to the year 1904, when the New York School of Applied Philanthropy (later, Columbia University School of Social Work) was opened as the first higher education program to train people in social work, including child development and youth work (Herman, 2007). Up to that time, social services were provided by religious and philanthropic organizations and often led by activists in the clergy and by educated women from middle- and upper-class backgrounds.

In the late 1800s, with few careers open to them, these educated women had begun to establish and run settlement houses for the poor—for instance, Chicago's Hull House founded by Jane Addams, and Henry Street in New York City founded by Lillian Wald. At the settlement houses, the women provided services that included health care, education, domestic violence services, and temporary foster care. Some settlement houses had kindergartens, libraries, gymnasiums, and more. They served the homeless, immigrants, and other poverty-stricken or disenfranchised individuals who had few options for services.

Living among the poor workers in overcrowded neighborhoods, the women who ran the settlement houses saw firsthand the effects of poverty on children and families. They saw how the lack of basic sanitation spread infectious diseases and caused high infant death rates, among other problems (Tichi, 2007; Reynolds, 2007). There was little government involvement in social or health issues at that time, so many of these social workers became social activists who helped build public awareness and contributed to efforts to reform child labor, child maltreatment, and other issues.

Some took their message right to the top. Lillian Wald and Florence Kelley, board members of the National Child Labor Committee, caught the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt. They asked him why there was no bureau that worked for the welfare of the nation's children the same way the Department of Agriculture worked to protect the nation's crops (Tichi, 2007; Reynolds, 2007). With the President's backing, the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children was held in 1909 to answer that question. Social workers, educators, juvenile court judges, and labor leaders were in attendance, as were child welfare activists Theodore Dreiser, Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington, and others (Reynolds, 2007). Among the far-reaching accomplishments of that day was a commitment to establish a Children's Bureau.

Later decades saw the establishment of hundreds of schools of social work, the creation of the National Association of Social Workers (in 1955), and the general professionalization of the field. Today, there are 640,000 social workers in America, embodying the same dedication to helping others found in the early social workers and activists more than 100 years ago.


Herman, E. (2007).The Adoption History Project. Retrieved from the University of Oregon Department of History website: http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~adoption/index.html    

Reynolds, H. (2007). Public health and midwifery. In L. Ament (Ed.), Professional issues in midwifery (pp. 51-59). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers. Retrieved from www.jblearning.com/samples/0763728365/Professional_Issues_in_Midwifery_Ch3.pdf

Tichi, C. (2007). Justice, not pity: Julia Lathrop, first chief of the U.S. Children's Bureau. Teleconference. Retrieved from www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/aboutcb/about_cb.htm 

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Access all of the articles in the Centennial Series from here: http://cbexpress.acf.hhs.gov/index.cfm?event=website.viewArticles&issueid=125&sectionid=1&articleid=3131.

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