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C.C. Carstens (1865-1939)

C. C. CARSTENS: Interpreter of the Needs of Dependent Children  (1865-1939)


By: Emma Octavia Lundberg*

 Carl Christian Carstens 1865 - 1939 [View Image]
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Carl Christian Carstens
1865 – 1939

Perhaps no other person concerned with child welfare had such an intimate knowledge of child-caring institutions and agencies throughout this country. or could count among his devoted friends so many of the heads and staff members of these organizations as did Christian Carl Carstens. known as “C.C.”  to all but his personal friends, to whom he was Carl. He seemed to have been intended by nature for an academic career. But just as he was endowed with an ardent love of fine music, so he had an instinct which grew into a passion for service which would lighten the burden of children who were neglected, dependent, or physically handicapped and make available to them the opportunities which should be the heritage of all children. He had a scholar’s interest in thoroughness and pre­cision of facts and an artist’s genius in interpreting dull figures and somber realities so that they reflected the experiences and deprivations of individual children. All of his life he remained the careful, earnest seeker after truth, a person not afraid of shifting position when new light dawned. He was an omnivorous reader, and many weary hours spent in day coaches during his almost constant travels from state to state and from city to city through­ out the country were lightened by the latest novel or the current book on history or economic problems. Those who knew him intimately knew the breadth and the balance of his many interests and marveled at the singleness of purpose and the intimate knowledge of conditions which he displayed when in conference with a community group or an institution head or a social worker seeking advice. A onetime mem­ber of his staff, the late Mary Irene Atkinson, said of him: “To have walked in the shadow of his friendship was like a benediction.” Another member of his staff, the writer.said: “To have been as­sociated with him in his work for children was an education and a constant inspiration…”

C. C. Carstens came to the United States from Germany with his parents when he was a young lad. He was brought up in Iowa and was graduated from Grinnell College. For a number of years he taught in Iowa high schools. He then attended the University of Pennsylvania where he took a Ph.D. degree in 1903. When he had completed these studies he became a member of the staff of the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity of which Mary E. Richmond was then the head. Miss Richmond has been quoted as saying of him that he “developed a genius for thorough case work.” Later he joined the staff of the New York Charity Organization Society when Edward T. Devine was its general secretary.    For many years he was executive secretary of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and was instrumental in making that agency a state-wide organization which placed its emphasis not upon work as an arm of the law but upon constructive services which would. if possible, strengthen and maintain family ties. He was unremitting in his efforts to safeguard children from neglect by parents and to stamp out conditions in communities which threatened the moral or physical welfare of children.

In 1915 Mr. Carstens, then secretary and general-agent of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. aroused much attention by a forward-looking address at the National Conference on Community Plan of Children’s Work. He said that diversity of work had long been the most noticeable factor in chil­dren’s work in the various states, but that long steps had been taken in the development of a national spirit. “Our social insti­tutions are beginning to feel an impetus leading them also to con­sider ways and means that are national in their form and scope if not federal in their scheme organization.”  He went on to say:

“In the development of children’s work in the United States, it is the opinion of many who have been active in one or another phase of the subject. that the time has come for giving shape to some general plan which shall have gathered together the success­ful experiences of various states and cities, shall weave them into an harmonious whole and make it possible for those who are working at the development of our various institutions in our newer conm1unities, or who are interested in reshaping the chil­dren’s institutions of the older states, to see what various forms of service it is necessary for communities to provide for the proper safeguarding of the children’s interests.”

After outlining some fundamental principles of public and pri­vate social service and the necessity of interrelating social en­terprises through some form of clearing house for information, he discussed classification of tasks, outlining the types of service required for dealing with problems of child-dependency, neglect, delinquency, mental deficiency, and physical handicaps. He pointed out that protective health services for infants was an essential of a community program of child welfare, that “the interests of the so­cial agency overlap with those of the physician and of the school,” and that “religious, intellectual,  physical, vocational, and indus­trial training and education, amusements, recreation, and athletic sports, and a number of other sides of a child’s development are of the greatest importance when we come to consider his whole life.” This challenging statement of the scope of a community plan for child welfare was the keynote for Dr. Carstens’ later work as the head of a national agency devoted primarily to helping communities to become better equipped for the care of dependent and neglected children. He always kept firmly in mind the interrelationship of social problems and the importance of adequate provision for health and educational services in relation to prevention of delinauency and neglect and the treatment of individual children.

The 1909 Conference on the Care of Dependent Children had recommended the establishment of a private agency along the line of similar agencies in other fields to undertake work in behalf of dependent children, and in 1916 a small group organized the Com­mittee on Exchange of Information. Funds for a permanent agency were furnished by the Commonwealth Fund and in 1921 Mr. Carstens was chosen as the director of the new national agency, the Child Welfare League of America. Under his leadership the league grew into a cooperative organization of child-caring agencies and in­stitutions which included in its membership more than 300 child-placing agencies, institutions for dependent children, and state child-welfare bureaus.

Dr. Carstens was a firm believer in the development of public as well as private activities in behalf of children.  In common with other leaders of his day. he was an advocate of foster-family care and he did much to improve the standards and methods of work of child-placing agencies, and especially to change the trend from a preponderating reliance upon free homes to the wider use of board­ing homes adapted to the needs of individual children. But he was never a partisan of family-home care as against institutional care. His concern was always focused upon the quality of service, not upon the type of organization. For this reason he had a tremen­dous influence upon the development of good institutional care, as well as upon the improvement of family-home care for children. Perhaps the most far-reaching expression of his neutrality with respect to type of agency and his concern that children should be cared for according to their individual needs, is found in the proposal which Dr. Carstens in conjunction with his friend Prentice Hurphy presented to the 1930 White House Conference to the effect that the two forms of caring for dependent children should no longer be considered separate methods but two necessary parts of a Whole called foster-care. The emphasis, of course, was placed upon intake; foster-care of any kind would be greatly reduced if proper use were made of community resources for preventing the need for removal of children from their own homes, determining later the kind of care required for each child who needed foster care. It was recognized that group care might be more desirable for some children, while care in family homes was better adapted to the needs of others. Dr. Carstens did not live to see the day when there would be full acceptance of the implications of this change of terminology and philosophy.  His continued influence would no doubt have hastened the fulfillment of the vision.

During his years with the Child Welfare League, Dr. Carstens guided innumerable community child-welfare surveys and studies of individual agencies and institutions. He selected the members of his survey staffs with great care and discrimination, and as the late Mrs. Edith M. H. Baylor, who was associated with him in many such studies, said of him: “Those of us who had a part in making these studies with him know what a rich experience it was. As we look back upon it we can see how skillfully he encouraged initiative, and inspired each one to make an individual contribution. He did not permit the study to represent the thinking of one person but he made it rather a composite of the best that the entire group of workers on his staff could contribute.” Another associate, the writer, said: “A survey was not a job to be done and a report to be written; it was a crusade for a square deal for children.”   With a quick grasp of the significant findings of a study, Dr. Carstens. in collaboration with his staff of workers interpreted the results of the findings in terms of their meaning to the life of the com­munity and to the lives of children.

Sometimes the recommendations he presented seemed to fall flat against community indifference, conflict of personalities, and agency complexes, but the definite gains made in other places were a de­light to his soul. Although he served communities and agencies throughout the country, he seemed to get more tangible results and more enjoyment from his activities in the southern states than in any other section. A case in point is his relation to state child­ welfare work in Alabama. The Child Welfare League was asked to undertake studies in this state because there was a real desire to know what should be done for disadvantaged children and a sincere purpose to profit by his recommendations. With Mrs. L. B. Tunstall, who was at that time director of the Alabama State Child Welfare Department, which later developed into the State Depart­ment of Public Welfare, as with Dr. Carstens, there was no ques­tion of half-way measures or compromises, and it was because of the foundation which she had built in the state and her sincerity in putting into effect measures that seemed essential to the welfare of children, that Alabama became Dr. Carstens’ “favorite child.” As a result of the legal and administrative measures put into ef­fect in that state following the league’s survey in 1931, Alabama took a leading place among the states in most of its program for the social welfare of children, and its purpose to ”keep on keeping on” has continued under the expanded department.

Dr. Carstens not only believed in the development of public as well as private services for children, as has already been pointed out, but he was always firm in his conviction that child welfare begins at home and in the home community!

“The first step in any-child welfare program should be to make available to every family in which there are needy children such assistance as may be required to conserve the home. “Every child is first of all a member of the community in which his family has legal residence. He is, therefore, entitled to such services as exist in his own particular community for the conserva­tion of family life and for the care and supervision required when a child must be removed from his own home.

“The quality of work with families has a very direct bearing on the demands for child care. If case work with families is of high grade and if relief is adequate, preventive work will be done which will make it possible for certain children to remain in their own homes, thus cutting down the number who need to be cared for permanently.

“When the morale of a family breaks down because of the stress of poverty, it is sometimes impossible to rebuild it.

 “The day is past when a child-caring institution can feel that its responsibility is fulfilled when it accepts a child for care. Service to dependent children is now understood to include service to the child’s family in order that the home may be conserved for the child.”

Dr.Carstens was a dynamic force in all four of the White House Conferences on Children. He was a member of the 1909 Conference on Dependent Children. In the 1919 Conference on Child Welfare Standards he worked especially on the statement in regard to standardization of children’s laws, a subject which had long interested him.  In 1929 he was appointed by President Hoover as chairman of the Section on Handicapped Children of the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. Four of the volumes issued by this conference were the result of the work of committees, studying under Dr. Carstens’ general direction, the following subjects: state and local organizations for the handicapped, physically and mentally handicapped, socially handi­capped–dependency and neglect, and delinquency.  During his last year of life he served actively on committees preparing for the 1940 Conference on Children in a Democracy.and his death meant a severe loss to that body. Dr. Carstens was a member of the United States delegation to the Fifth Pan-American Congress, which met in Havana, and he was active in behalf of the Non­-Sectarian Committee for German Refugee Children. His impending retirement from the Child Welfare League was announced at the June.1939 annual meeting of the association, but his sudden death in July of that year ended his career of service to chil­dren. A memorial service of music fittingly commemorated the life of this man who had gained so much inspiration and comfort from the noble strains of great composers.

Source: Emma Octavia Lundberg. Unto the Least of These. D. Appleton­ Century Company, 1947. pp. 249- 55. Transcribed from a document filed in the Child Welfare League of America Records. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN. More information is available at:

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