Family First in Historical Perspective

The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016 has been a year in the making, a carefully negotiated piece of legislation that combines a bipartisan interest in expanding federal resources for families in crisis while curbing the use of congregate care settings.

The bill may be recent, but the federal interest in those goals finds root in a White House meeting that took place 107 years ago.

The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt, was held in Washington on January 25 and 26, 1909. Of the close to 250 child professionals invited to the conference by the President – a list of who’s who in the advocacy and child caring institutions in the nation –virtually all attended and participated in the conference.


President Theodore Roosevelt. Photo:

The current Family First bill reads: “To amend parts B and E of title IV of the Social Security Act to invest in funding prevention and family services to help keep children safe and supported at home, to ensure that children in foster care are placed in the least restrictive, most family-like and appropriate settings, and for other purposes.” The tenor and basic assumptions of the bill recall the proceedings of the first White House conference and its resolutions.

In the history of American child protection, the 1909 White House conference rested on the core belief that “home life is the highest and finest product of civilization. Children should not be deprived of it except for urgent and compelling reasons.” In his call for the conference on December 25, 1908, President Roosevelt stated categorically:

“Personally, I very much believe that the best way in which to care for dependent children is in the family home. In Massachusetts, many orphan asylums have been discontinued and thousands of the children who formerly have gone to the orphan asylum are now kept in private homes, either on board, with payment from public or private treasuries, or in adopted homes provided by the generosity of foster parents.”

Since many dependent children in the past were primarily cared for in orphanages or asylums, a major tenor of the conference was in opposition to placing children in such “congregate systems.”

In a “Special Message” to the Senate and House of Representatives of February 15, less than a month after the conference, Roosevelt stated that the following:

“The Census Bureau reported in 1904 that there were in orphanages and children’s homes about 93,000 dependent children. There are probably 50,000 more (the precise number never having been ascertained) in private homes, either on board or in adopted homes provided by the generosity of foster parents. In addition to these there were 25,000 children in institutions for juvenile delinquents … The interests of the nation are involved in the welfare of this army of children, no less than in our great material affairs.”

This subject, he said, was “one of high importance to the well-being of the nation,” and he recommended “legislation as is herein recommended not only important for the welfare of the children immediately concerned, but important as setting an example of a high standard of child protection by the National Government to the several States of the Union, which should be able to look to the nation for leadership in such matters.”

Here are some of the fourteen Congress Resolutions:

  1. Home care. – Dependent children should be kept with their parents.”
  2. Preventive work. – The effort should be made to eradicate causes of dependency, such as disease and accident, and to substitute compensation and insurance for relief.”
  3. Home finding. – Homeless and neglected children, if normal, should be cared for in families, when practicable.” The comment stresses that children “who for sufficient reasons must be removed from their own homes, or who have no homes, it is desirable that … they should be cared for in families wherever practicable.”
  4. Cottage system. — Institutions should be on the cottage plan with small units, as far as possible.”

In the comment to article 4, the cottage plan is further elucidated:

“Twenty-five is suggested as a desirable cottage unit … The cottage plan is probably somewhat more expensive, both in construction and in maintenance, than the congregate system. It is so, however, only because it secures for the children a larger degree of association with adults and a nearer approach to the conditions of family life … The sending of children of any age or class to almshouses is an unqualified evil, and should be forbidden everywhere by law, with suitable penalty for its violation.”

To avoid being accused of ahistorical reasoning, I feel compelled to also quote from one of the concluding addresses about the “Significance of the Conference” by the Hon. Ben B. Lindsey, Judge of the Juvenile Court in Denver, Colorado. In a lengthy disquisition, he analyzes some of the major causes of child dependency:

“Most of the dependent children of the nation are the children of laboring people, children of the poor, the miserable and the unfortunate, and while we should not for one instant permit to escape us the greater and often inexcusable causes of dependency, such as shiftlessness, immorality, and intemperance, neither should we let these blind us to the industrial barbarism and injustice of this age, which is one of the greatest causes of child dependency.”

Today, when the most important child welfare legislation in decades is awaiting approval by the U.S. Senate, it might be useful to remind ourselves of the landmark child welfare concerns which tie this current legislation to the policy motives and values of over a century ago.

Photo: Ron Jautz

Photo: Ron Jautz

Gertrud Lenzer is professor emerita of Sociology and Children’s Studies, founding director emerita, Children and Youth Studies Program and Children’s Studies Center for Research, Policy and Public Service at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York.

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