• August 2012
  • Vol. 13, No. 7

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Centennial Series: The Children's Bureau During Wartime

This is the fourth 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.

"We are fighting again for human freedom and especially for the future of our children in a free world. Children must be safeguarded—and they can be safeguarded—in the midst of this total war so they can live and share in that future. They must be nourished, sheltered, and protected even in the stress of war production so they will be strong to carry forward a just and lasting peace."
—A Children's Charter in Wartime, 1942

The research that occupied much of the Children's Bureau's efforts during the Great Depression and earlier was sidelined during World War II. If it was not considered a war effort contribution, it was suspended. Yet, the Bureau maintained its focus on evaluating the circumstances affecting children and families, conducting brief studies of child agricultural workers, juvenile detention centers, and day care programs. While it cared for children affected by war at home, the Bureau also facilitated the care of European child war victims.

As the war pushed more women into the workforce, Bureau staff heard rumors from defense centers of children left in the care of neighbors or relatives, in parked cars, or even home alone while their mothers worked. In 1941, the Bureau called a conference on the Day Care of Children of Working Mothers to convene experts on the subject. In 1942, the Committee on Standards and Services for Day Care submitted its report Standards for Day Care of Children of Working Mothers. This work laid the foundation for Bureau studies in 1941 and 1943 of military camp facilities for the wives and infants of soldiers. At the same time, the Bureau approved the use of Federal maternal and child health funds—for which it was charged with allocating under the Social Security Act—for maternity care of wives of enlisted men. More funds still were needed to care for the increased number of military wives and new mothers. After appeals from the Bureau, in March 1943, Congress passed an appropriations bill for emergency maternal and infant care of the wives and babies of soldiers.

The Bureau's longstanding fight against child labor also continued during wartime. The number of boys and girls aged 16–18 who left school for work rose to 3 million in the early 1940s. Just as it had done during World War I and again during the Great Depression, the Children's Bureau mounted an effort to combat the breakdown in child labor law enforcement. Working with the Office of Education, the Children's Bureau launched back-to-school drives during 1943 and 1944.

The Children's Bureau's 1918 report Juvenile Delinquency in Certain Countries at War: A Brief Review of Available Foreign Sources highlighted evidence of increased rates of juvenile delinquency in England, Germany, France, Italy, and other countries during World War I. It was argued that the increase was due to fathers sent to the frontlines and mothers working outside the home. The trend took root in the U.S. during the second World War. Rates of juvenile delinquency began to rise in 1940 and reached their peak in 1945. The Children's Bureau launched several studies to understand the problem, focusing on the experience of juveniles in detention in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina and police work with juveniles. The Bureau also conducted training conferences to teach the police workforce how to more effectively work with youth.

In 1940, the fight to protect the well-being of children expanded to include thousands of European child evacuees. The United States Committee for the Care of European Children was formed in June 1940 when it became clear that government action was needed to provide refuge for children escaping the fighting. Children's Bureau Chief Katharine Lenroot published Care of Children Coming to the United States for Safety Under the Attorney General's Order of July 13, 1940, outlining the Bureau's standards for the care of these children.

According to the report, the Bureau worked with State child welfare agencies and designated 184 agencies in 40 States to find homes for European child victims of war. The Bureau and the Committee also worked to keep an accurate record of all children who came to the United States, and, through the register, child welfare agencies were alerted of the refugee children cared for in their States. In October 1940, the British Government discouraged continued evacuation of children to the U.S. due to the increased dangers of ocean travel. Despite this announcement, the Committee and the Bureau remained steadfast in their commitment to protect the children who had fled to the U.S., provide advice to public and private entities caring for these children, and care for those who would continue to arrive.

In 1942, the Children's Bureau called a National Commission on Children in Wartime, which was composed of 60 members. The Commission met annually and adopted A Children's Charter in Wartime, which made recommendations to guide the Children's Bureau's work during the conflict.

World War II disrupted the lives of children, families, and communities at home and abroad. Despite the many hardships caused by the defense program, the Children's Bureau maintained its focus on staying true to its mission to "investigate and report upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people."

(This article is based on historical material found mainly in the Five Decades of Action for Children, by Dorothy E. Bradbury, published by the Children's Bureau, and available here: http://www.mchlibrary.info/history/chbu/2628.PDF [9 MB])

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Read the first three articles in the second Centennial Series:

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