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Child Welfare League History 1919-1977

History of the Child Welfare League of America: 1919-1977


Editor’s Note:  This description of the history of the Child Welfare League of America was prepared by the staff of the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) grew out of child welfare advocates’ demands for better communication and regulation among agencies and institutions serving children. Its development over more than a decade reflected the gradual professionalization of social work in the early twentieth century and paralleled a period of growing emphasis on the issues of dependent children, child protection, and related problems. During the 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, delegates cited the need for a national child welfare agency. At the 1915 National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Carl Christian Carstens delivered a paper on the need for standards in child welfare work. In response, delegates from fourteen child welfare organizations founded the Bureau for the Exchange of Information among Child Helping Agencies (BEI). Initially, the BEI operated with funding from the Child-Helping Department of the Russell Sage Foundation. It became an independent agency in 1917.

In December, 1919, attendees at an annual child welfare conference decided to establish a national organization and to seek funding for the project. In 1920, the Commonwealth Fund agreed to provide at least $25,000 per year for four years. TheCarl Christian Carstens, Executive Director 1920 - 1939[View Image]
[View Image]
Carl Christian Carstens, Executive Director
1920 – 1939

BEI accepted the grant and the mission to establish a national child welfare organization to improve children’s services and distribute literature. The Bureau’s members adopted the first article of a proposed constitution in 1920, calling the new organization the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). Carstens was appointed executive director in 1920, a post he held until his death in 1939. The CWLA officially began operations in January, 1921. Organizational details were completed at that year’s National Conference of Social Work. Sixty-five organizations, representing a wide range of principles and practices, became charter members. Ida Curry of the State Charities Aid Association of New York was elected the first president.

In 1923, CWLA adopted a statement of purpose and formalized the services it would provide. These included: studying child welfare in order to develop better standards and methods; providing information and assistance to social welfare agencies and non-social service groups; and promoting community planning for children’s work. The organization took a position on the long-standing debate over institutionalizing and “placing out” of dependent children. Standards promulgated by the CWLA stressed temporary rather than permanent institutional care for dependent children and the preservation of the family. At the same time, the CWLA recognized the continuing need for children’s institutions in the total child care system. In order to improve the institutional system, it conducted surveys of child care facilities and developed standards and guidelines. In 1924, CWLA established a children’s case work department and, by the end of the decade, it was conducting regional conferences for workers in the field and holding training institutes for executives and experienced staff workers.

Following Carstens’ death in 1939, CWLA went through a period of self-evaluation. It established a Special Committee on Reorganization to study its mission in light of emerging government programs. The committee also studied whether the League should disband. In 1940, CWLA affirmed its commitment to national work in all areas of child welfare and stressed the importance of maintaining a major non-governmental agency. The reorganization committee proposed continuing the league’s information exchange, as well as its accrediting and consulting services. It also recommended: establishing a personnel placement bureau, preparing materials for social work training in child welfare, setting standards, promoting child welfare legislation and advising agencies on legislation, and advocating for child welfare issues. Howard W. Hopkirk succeeded Carstens as executive director and served until 1948. Continuity in leadership remained a hallmark of the League. Hopkirk’s successor, Joseph Reid, was executive director from 1953 until 1978. Major reevaluation of League activities accompanied administrative transitions in 1939 to 1940 and in 1953 to 1955 as the CWLA reshaped its program to meet members’ needs and changes in child welfare programs.Howard W. Hopkirk, Executive Director of the Child Welfare League of America 1939-1948[View Image]
[View Image]
Howard W. Hopkirk, Executive Director of the Child Welfare League of America

CWLA operated on an increasingly national level throughout the 1930s and subsequent decades. The league developed ties with governmental agencies, such as the United States Children’s Bureau, and added new program areas, including adoption, minority children, and day care. During World War II, it assumed the work and concerns of the National Association of Day Nurseries in promoting day care for children of working mothers. Work in this field continued to grow after the war, often in concert with the Children’s Bureau and with organized labor. A Ford Foundation grant in 1959 underwrote an important nationwide study of day care. A CWLA study of adoption culminated in a conference in 1955. In the late 1950s, the League worked with member agencies to find adoptive homes for Native American children. In the mid-1960s, it developed a clearing house that subsequently became the Adoption Resource Exchange of North America (ARENA). It continued to promote foster care and emphasize the need to avoid placement in an institution, particularly of young children. Research became an increasingly vital part of the League’s total program, as indicated by the creation of a separate research department in 1963.

The institution of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other federal welfare programs during the 1960s and 1970s resulted in an enlarged research, program development, and advocacy role for CWLA. A committee studied needed improvements in public child care agencies. The League also took particular interest in Aid to Dependent Children, investigating a 1960 incident involving Louisiana’s administration of the program and later joining in an amicus curiae brief in a U.S. Supreme Court case. The CWLA also played an important role in the development of child protective services and in federal legislation aimed at child abuse and neglect. .

During the early 1970s, the CWLA and the Family Service Association of America investigated the possibility of a merger, but, ultimately, decided against the plan. In 1976, CWLA merged with the Florence Crittenton Association of America, a federation of maternity homes and services for unmarried parents. From this merger, the Florence Crittenton Division of the Child Welfare League of America was formed. The League was also instrumental in founding the Council on Accreditation for Services for Families and Children (COA) between 1973 and 1976. The COA, which operated briefly as a joint body of CWLA and the Family Service Association of America, became an independent entity in 1977. CWLA continues to produce standards and other resources, conduct research, facilitate information sharing, and influence public policy and legislation in virtually all areas of child and family welfare, juvenile justice, and children’s behavioral health


Child Welfare League of America Records. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

Child Welfare League of America Records. Box 93,”The History of the Child Welfare League of America, Inc., 1915-1987.” University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

Romanofsky, Peter, ed. Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Institutions: Social Service Organizations. Westport: Greenwood Publishing, 1978. pp. 224-230.

Additional information was obtained from the Child Welfare League of America website

How to Cite this Article (APA Format). Social Welfare History Archives. (2013). History of the Child Welfare League of America: 1919-1977. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=9202.

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