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Children’s Bureau Centennial Commemoration

April 9, 2012
Washington, DC

100 years ago, when the Children’s Bureau was created, Ford had just started rolling Model-Ts off of its assembly lines.

Over the last 100 years, these institutions have remained part of our country’s fabric. Ford continues to make great American cars and today the work of the Children’s Bureau continues to touch the lives of some of our most vulnerable children.

The Children’s Bureau was created in response to conditions for children that today would be considered an outrage. At the time, more than 1 in 10 infants did not live to their first birthday.  Many children left school to support their families by working in dangerous jobs. And children who lost their parents were often institutionalized and not given proper care.

Some children even ended up on what was then called “orphan trains” that took parentless children west to live with families who needed farm labor.

The Bureau was the world’s first government agency dedicated to protecting children.  And its creation was a clear signal that these wrongs would no longer be tolerated and that our country was taking seriously its moral responsibility to care for the most vulnerable among us.

The Bureau’s first chief, Julia Lathrop, and her 15 staff started with a $26,000 budget.

One of their first acts was to conduct our country’s first ever comprehensive study into the causes of infant mortality in eight diverse American cities.  Their work started to give families and communities the information they needed to prevent the death of their infants.  And the Bureau immediately showed its value. Between 1915 and 1921, infant mortality rates fell 24 percent and continued to fall. 

At the same time, in collaboration with the Federation of Women’s Clubs, the bureau launched a national birth registration drive that sent people door-to-door in search of accurate birth records.  This information had never been collected before and it became an invaluable tool in both education and labor reforms.

As the workers went door-to-door they also spread critical health information to families on how to keep children healthy.  In particular, this effort circulated millions of pamphlets to women who couldn’t get information on prenatal and infant care from a doctor.

The early days of the Bureau had a powerful effect on our nation’s future.  They gave families the information to raise healthy children, spoke out against child labor and helped shape the American generation that would fight and win World War II.

The Children’s Bureau has continued to build on these successes, and today it remains a force for improving children’s lives.

The research initiatives that began by going door-to-door in 8 cities today gather data for the entire country. 

Pamphlets have been replaced with global networks, like the Child Welfare Information Gateway, that reach every part of the child welfare community, including online forums that connect child welfare professionals and the public to research, training, policies and statistics.

Partnerships with a few women’s groups have multiplied to include collaborations with private industry, community organizations and foreign governments. This has led to great results within government, such as their work with Department of Defense supporting military families.  And it has allowed the Bureau to serve as an example for foreign nations, hosting delegations from all over the world on issues ranging from international adoption to programs for at-risk youth around the globe.

And of course, the Bureau is still a major player in the legislative priorities that provide opportunity for families and children around the country.  What used to be a focus on child labor and infant mortality has grown to include strengthening families, treating trauma, and promoting children’s well-being.

At the 50th anniversary of the Children’s Bureau, President Kennedy spoke of the Bureau’s importance to children and the honor in its mission.  But after congratulating them on their accomplishments, he called the child welfare community to action when he said:

“This 50th anniversary is an…occasion for us to rededicate ourselves to making the life of every child as fruitful and productive as it possibly can be,”

That is a challenge that we in the Obama Administration have taken very seriously.

First, we have renewed our commitment to the well-being of the 400,000 children and youth who remain in our foster care system.  This means an emphasis on their safety, permanency and well-being. Through our AdoptUSKids campaign we’ve raised awareness about the need for foster and adoptive families and helped states recruit these families and connect them to kids.  To date, more than 16,000 children previously featured on the national website have found permanent families.

Second, we have continued to improve our nation’s child care and Head Start programs around the country.  These programs can’t just be a room for kids to sit for a few hours while their parents are at work. That’s why we’re putting high-quality, evidence-based learning into early education. And through our administration’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge, we’ve made early learning opportunities for children with the greatest needs, including foster kids, a top priority.

Third, thanks to the strength of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, more and more families can get health care for their children without worrying about how they will pay for it.   And I’ve challenged states and communities around the country to go out, find kids who are eligible for coverage, but don’t have it, and get them signed up.  States and communities have responded. And as a result, today we can proudly say that more kids have health coverage than ever before.

There is a lot to be proud of. But as President Kennedy said, anniversaries are a time to think about how we can do better. And today, there are areas where we must rededicate ourselves again.

Last December, our department’s annual Child Maltreatment Report estimated that 695,000 children were victims of maltreatment in 2010, down from 825,000 in 2006.  But even one maltreated child is one too many.  At the federal, state and local level we need to practice prevention, recognize the warning signs of abuse and neglect, and support families in coping with the challenges they face.

Challenges also remain in our foster care and adoption systems.  We continue to reduce the number of children and youth in foster care, but over 100,000 kids still need permanent families and homes.  These children and youth are often struggling with health and behavioral problems that stem from trauma, and they require extra support and care. We need to make sure these children get the love and nurturing they need and help families who take them in provide strong homes.

At HHS and the Children’s Bureau, we’re doing our part by shifting resources to programs that are doing the most good and getting more out of each dollar.  We look forward to working with states on new waiver demonstrations that challenge states to innovate within the child welfare system to improve outcomes for children and families. And we’re placing an emphasis on addressing trauma and promoting healing and recovery for children who have experienced abuse and neglect, to ensure these traumas do not get passed down to the next generation. 

At a time when government resources have been stretched thin and we’re all being asked to do more with less, taking on these challenges is not the easy thing to do.  But it is the right thing to do.

Today as we honor the amazing achievements and continued excellence of the Children’s Bureau, I want to challenge each of you to consider what you can do -- as an individual, an organization, or an agency -- to join the Bureau’s mission and improve the lives of children around the country .

Working together we can ensure that every child can grow up in a healthy, nurturing family and that every child has the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Thank you.