• June 2012
  • Vol. 13, No. 5

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Centennial Series: The Children's Bureau and Juvenile Court Standards (1922–1932)

This is the second article in our second Centennial Series, CB Decade-by-Decade. These articles will examine highlights from each decade of the Children's Bureau's first 100 years. The first Centennial Series addressed some of the social issues, practices, and policies that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau.

The juvenile justice system we know today operates on a foundation that grew from the early efforts of the Children's Bureau. After its creation in 1912, the Children's Bureau's immediate work focused on maternal and infant mortality; however, investigating and reporting on juvenile courts was also part of its legislative mandate. The first Children's Bureau Chief Julia Lathrop and other early chiefs fought for a system of standards that recognized America's children were developmentally different from adults and deserved a chance at rehabilitation and treatment in lieu of punishment.

The establishment of juvenile courts paralleled the creation and early years of the Children's Bureau, and both of these institutions reflected society's changing views of children. The first juvenile court was established in 1899 in Chicago, IL. Forty-five States had followed suit by 1920. These courts often addressed problems with domestic relations pertaining to children who had become dependent on the State due to parental death, desertion, or negligence. These new courts operated under the British concept of parens patriae (the State as parent), which maintains that childhood is a time deserving of public protection and care (Lindenmeyer, 1997).

Not all children ended up in juvenile court as a result of parents' death or desertion. Some children were brought before a judge with a criminal charge. Even then, a child's foray into crime was often attributed to poor home life. In 1918, the Children's Bureau released the report Juvenile Delinquency in Certain Countries at War: A Brief Review of Available Foreign Sources. The report highlighted anecdotal evidence of increased rates of juvenile delinquency in England, Germany, France, Italy, and other countries during World War I (Lathrop, 1918). It was argued that the increase was the result of fathers sent to the frontlines, mothers working outside the home, and overcrowded schools. Juvenile delinquency was a social issue, not a criminal one.

Despite the growing number of juvenile courts, there were no uniform standards for jurisdiction or practices. Fourteen States passed juvenile court laws that extended to children 16 and younger; 13 States extended jurisdiction through age 17; and 17 States to children 18 years of age (Lindenmeyer, 1997). To gain a better understanding of current practices, the Children's Bureau, with support from the National Probation Association, conducted the first nationwide survey of juvenile courts. The study asserted that the classification of juvenile court was reserved for those that had the following (Rosenthal, 1986):

  1. Hearings for children that were separate from hearings for adults
  2. A chancery procedure rather than a criminal procedure
  3. Regular probation services for investigation and supervision
  4. Separate detention for juveniles
  5. A system for recording information on case records
  6. Provisions for conducting physical and mental examinations

The survey was sent to 2,391 courts, and all but 300 responded; however, the responses were underwhelming. Just 45 percent of courts had adopted provisions for probation, and less than half of these had full-time probation officers. Only 23 judges nationwide reported spending all of their time on juvenile court cases (Rosenthal, 1986). The results drove the Children's Bureau to conduct more studies that would set the stage for the development of uniform standards for juvenile courts. One such study—the results of which were published in 1925 in the report Juvenile Courts at Work A Study of the Organization and Methods of Ten Courts—examined 10 juvenile courts in different areas of the country that served populations between 100,000 and 1 million.

Julia Lathrop—who established the precedent of consulting with experts in the field—promoted articles written by juvenile justice experts. Charles Chute from the National Probation Association authored Probation in Children's Courts: A Monograph Prepared for the Children's Bureau, in which he wrote, "Society is at last beginning to see that there should be substituted for its system of prosecution, trial, and punishment—ineffectual to either prevent crime or cure the criminal—a system of investigation, diagnosis, and treatment, such has now been adopted, in theory and at least partially in practice, in the children's courts" (Chute, 1921).

The Children's Bureau and the National Probation Association held a national conference on juvenile court standards in June 1921 where Lathrop appointed a committee charged with generating standards for the courts. After 2 years and input from judges, probation officers, child welfare workers, and others, the committee submitted its final report in May 1923, and the standards were adopted. They mirrored the six requirements set forth in the early survey, in addition to outlining provisions regarding custody decisions, adoption cases, violations of school attendance, determination of paternity and child support, and other issues (Davis & Abbott, 1923). Based on these standards, the National Probation Association formed a committee that drafted a standard juvenile court law, which was approved at the 18th annual conference in 1924.

In 1926, the Children's Bureau began collecting nationwide juvenile court statistics and publishing annual reports on its findings. From 1913 to 1930, the Children's Bureau published 49 studies on juvenile delinquency and dependent children. The Children's Bureau's rigorous evaluation methods and insistence upon child protection in lieu of child punishment created a foundation on which the juvenile justice system stands today (Lindenmeyer, 1997; Rosenthal, 1986). 

Chute, C. (1921). Probation in children's courts: Monograph prepared for the Children's Bureau. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.mchlibrary.info/history/chbu/21390.pdf (1.7 MB)

Davis, J., & Abbott, G. (1923). Juvenile-court standards: Report of the committee appointed by the Children's Bureau, August, 1921, to formulate juvenile-court standards. Adopted by a conference held under the auspices of the Children's Bureau and the National Probation Association. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.mchlibrary.info/history/chbu/20531-1923.PDF (804 KB)

Lathrop, J. (1918). Juvenile delinquency in certain countries at war: A brief review of available foreign sources. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=xx7httNcTU0C&printsec=titlepage#v=onepage&q&f=false

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

Rosenthal, M. (1986). The Children's Bureau and the Juvenile Court: Delinquency Policy, 1912–1940. Social Service Review, 60(2) pp. 303–318. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30012344


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