Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2008

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Reviving the White House Conference on Children

CWLA calls for a White House Conference in 2010 to focus on child welfare, following a tradition that began 100 years ago and improved the lives of millions of children.

By Jennifer Michael and Madeleine Goldstein

During the early 20th Century, those working to improve the lives of children in the United States faced an uphill battle. Brutal child labor was not uncommon, school attendance was loosely enforced, if at all, and the institutionalization of children whose parents had died or were incapable of caring for them was the norm.

Despite the challenges, policymakers and organizations made headway as the decades progressed in passing new laws and initiatives that boosted and supported children's wellbeing. Seven national White House conferences devoted to children and youth propelled much of this work. President Theodore Roosevelt initiated the first in 1909; President Nixon, the last in 1970. Direct outcomes from these gatherings included a commitment to ending the institutionalization of dependent children, the first significant report on child health and welfare standards, the creation of CWLA and the U.S. Children's Bureau, the development of a national Children's Charter, and legitimacy given to the benefits of creative freedom and healthy personality development on children's well-being.

Today, at the dawn of the 21st Century, CWLA is calling for a new White House Conference on Children and Youth to commence in 2010. Although conditions for children have improved substantially since the first conference in 1909, 3 million cases of abuse and neglect are reported annually. More than 100,000 children wait to be adopted. To make matters worse, less than half of children in care are eligible for federal foster care and adoption support.

"The fundamental purpose of the 2010 White House Conference on Children and Youth is to fulfill the nation's need for an overall vision in child welfare and refocus an inspired understanding of the many facts we have at our disposal," says CWLA President and CEO Christine James-Brown.

Looking ahead to 2010, it's also important to look back at how past conferences approached the issues of their time. What follows are summaries of the accomplishments of previous White House conferences. From these examples, CWLA aims to inspire a new national conversation around a new generation.

1909: Raising Public Awareness

The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children in 1909 was designed to raise public awareness and address children's issues applicable to the time, including the deleterious effects of institutionalizing dependent and neglected children.

President Roosevelt, together with some 200 conference attendees, offered nine proposals concerning the use of institutional care for dependent and neglected children. Conference members emphasized the importance of family and home life and incorporated this ideology into their proposals, including establishment of a foster care program, formation of the federal Children's Bureau, regular state inspections of foster care homes, and education and medical care for children in foster care.

The conference proved successful when the Children's Bureau was created in 1912. Other outcomes included development of the widows' pension movement, the growth of adoption agencies, the establishment of boarding-out care for children who were not adopted, and the formation of the "cottage plan" that replaced congregate institutions.

The 1909 conference also led to CWLA's birth. During the event, several child welfare agency executives decided to create the Bureau for Exchange of Information Among Child-Helping Agencies to support each other and share knowledge. In 1920, after the second White House Conference, members converted the bureau into the Child Welfare League of America.

1919: Developing Standards

The White House Conference on Standards of Child Welfare convened in 1919--designated by President Woodrow Wilson as the "children's year"--at the suggestion of the Children's Bureau. The conference involved a series of meetings in Washington, DC, and eight cities nationwide. Committees of five to eight members determined minimum standards for child labor, health care for children and mothers, and aid for special-needs children.

The conference's Committee on Children Entering Employment, for example, stimulated improvements in state regulation of child labor, and the Committee on Health Care for Children and Mothers drafted detailed statements on health standards for treating pregnant women, infants and preschool children, schoolchildren, and adolescents. This prompted widespread awareness of the need for better standards for maternity and infancy protection.

1930: Promoting Health and Well-Being

Preparations for the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection began in July 1929 when President Herbert Hoover announced the purpose was "to study the present status of the health and well-being of the children of the United States and its possessions, to report what is being done, to recommend what ought to be done and how to do it."

Some 1,200 experts in 17 committees compiled research and documents on their respective areas. The White House provided a substantial $500,000 in funding.

When the conference took place in November 1930, all 3,000 attendees received a 643-page volume of information. A public volume was published in 1931, containing conference speeches, abstracts of committee reports, lists of committee members, and a Children's Charter offering 19 proposals on the requirements for children's education, health, welfare, and protection. The final conference reports were published in 32 volumes. Although the conference generated the most comprehensive report on the needs of children ever written, the overwhelming volume of reports and proposals impeded efforts to convert the recommendations into action.

One of the conference's notable outcomes was the creation of the American Pediatric Society.

1939: Assessing Research, Taking Action

The purpose of the 1939 Conference on Children in a Democracy was to accumulate research on children in the 1930s and establish a program of action to treat the needs of children in the 1940s.

In creating the program, the conference's Report Committee considered American family life, family income, family residence, education, child labor, child health care, special needs children, and finances. The committee produced an 85-page volume containing research results and 98 proposals. General recommendations included a proposal for a program of action over 10 years to cover all aspects of a child's life. The program would be shaped from actual experiences of children and would consider the country's financial situation. The committee also pursued balancing the involvement of local, state, and federal governments and voluntary agencies in child welfare reform, while emphasizing the importance of maintaining a strictly nonpartisan, nonpolitical agenda.

The Conference on Children in a Democracy focused on areas such as malnutrition and the elimination of discrimination on the basis of race or faith. An important outcome was the 1943 Emergency, Maternity, and Infant Care Program, the largest medical care program instituted by the United States up to that time. The program provided free medical, nursing, and hospital services for mothers during prenatal and delivery periods, as well as six weeks of postpartum. Complete care was also provided to infants less than 1 year old.

1950: Federal, State, and Local Collaboration

The 1950 Mid-Century White House Conference on Youth and Children was the best-attended and had the strongest leadership of any conference on children and youth to that point. Youth were invited for the first time, and 400 attended. Two hundred foreign delegates representing 30 nations observed the conference proceedings.

Overall, the conference emphasized the importance of healthy personality development and how social, educational, health, recreational, and religious institutions help shape children's personalities. Preparations began well in advance at the state level, with committees assessing children's needs. State committees created 1,000 local committees. Each state submitted a report for incorporation into the White House conference proceedings.

More than 460 national organizations helped plan the conference. They kept their own members up-to-date on the progress of the conference, organized meetings between their members and state White House conference committee members, arranged and led discussions on the effects of community life on a child's personality, and conducted research.

Many of these organizations also submitted reports for integration into the conference proceedings. As a result, a Chart Book and 170-page Fact-Finding Report were published before the conference. Donations from national organizations and foundations, as well as $150,000 from Congress, funded the event.

The conference theme encompassed all facets of life, from public health, to theater, religion, education, and recreation. According to an account in the January 1951 edition of the American Journal of Public Health, the Mid-Century Conference "base[d] its concern for children on the primacy of spiritual values, democratic practice, and the dignity and worth of every individual. Accordingly, the purpose of the Conference [was] to consider how we can develop in children the mental, emotional, and spiritual qualities essential to individual happiness and responsible citizenship and what physical, economic, and social conditions are deemed necessary to this development."

Addressing National Committee members before the conference, President Harry Truman articulated the need for a stronger educational program with more teachers and better-funded schools. Other conference goals included documenting participants' expertise on the physical, mental, emotional, and moral needs of children; providing suggestions to enhance the quality of child services; and parents fostering healthy development for their children.

As the conference began, delegates made a pledge to children that unified the attendees in their promise to help improve children's quality of life. To meet the varied interests of the participants, attendees divided into 35 work groups on such topics as nursing, the role of the arts, and racial discrimination. Minority groups represented the needs of different racial groups.

The groups submitted their recommendations during the conference closing. The work group on healthy personality growth, for example, recommended increasing children's participation and interest in the arts to lead to healthier personal development and creative freedom for children nationwide.

1960: Getting Creative

Seven thousand delegates attended the Golden Anniversary White House Conference on Children and Youth. The theme was "to promote opportunities for children and youth to realize their full potential for a creative life in freedom and dignity."

More than 6 million citizens participated in preparatory activities, including state and local committees that drafted the States' Report on Children and Youth and other reports. Young people were invited to attend, and their reports on the conference were published too. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's opening address highlighted the importance of high-quality, long-term education for children.

Committee members determined a series of procedures for the conference. The structure remained the same, with larger general sessions and smaller work groups that drafted recommendations and discussed and voted on them in larger forums.

The growth of the White House Conference necessitated 210 work groups, 175 more than the 1950 conference. Their recommendations were specific to certain fields. The work group devoted to the arts, for example, proposed improvements in the areas of creative writing, visual arts, music, theater, and dance. The pediatrics work group attested to the profound impact of past White House conferences on reducing the death rate for infants under age 1 by 78% between 1910 and 1956. The death rate of preschool children ages 1 to 4 had decreased by 92%, and the death rate of youth ages 15 to 19 had dropped by almost 75%.

After much debate, attendees presented and published 670 final recommendations.

1970: Cherishing Individuality and Identity

The purpose of the 1970 White House Conference was "to enhance and cherish the individuality and identity of each American child through the recognition and encouragement of his or her own development, regardless of environmental conditions or circumstances of birth," according to a July 1971 article in The Family Coordinator. Conference planners included youth, professionals, parents, and community workers.

The conference focused on infants and young children from birth to age 5, children ages 6-13, and youth ages 14-24. Regional conferences focused on children to age 13 also occurred in six cities. Four thousand people attended the national conference in Washington and divided into forums of 15 members each who gathered data, researched the needs of children, and submitted recommendations. Forum 14, for example, looked at changing families in a changing society and society's pluralistic nature. Forum 15 focused on parent-child relationships and articulated the importance of a parent figure in each child's life.

In addition to producing forum reports, delegates ranked 16 statements of conference priorities in order of concern. According to The Family Coordinator, these included "comprehensive child development programs that include health services, day care and early childhood education, programs that eliminate 'the racism which cripples all children,' and a reordering of the nation's priorities, beginning with 'a guaranteed basic family income adequate for the needs of children.'"

The conference stressed the importance of direct and immediate implementation. The regional conferences devised strategies for implementing the national conference recommendations. Outcomes included establishing state councils to monitor the status of children in the states, and creation of a Congressional Subcommittee on Children and Youth.

Looking Forward to 2010

Momentum faded after the 1970 event. President Jimmy Carter called for a White House conference on families during his 1976 campaign, which led to a small event in 1979 that was not as formalized or focused as past White House conferences. President Ronald Reagan disbursed money to the states for their own individual events, but no formal White House Conference on Children and Youth took place. Congress authorized a White House Conference on Children, Youth, and Families for 1993, but funding never followed. One-day White House conferences took place during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush around single issues such as early childhood development, missing and exploited children, and school safety.

CWLA is calling on its members and national partners to take the first step toward reestablishing the tradition of a full-fledged White House Conference on Children and Youth. CWLA envisions the conference focusing on child welfare issues--in particular, prevention, permanence, and safety. The conference would be part of a larger strategy to refocus the nation's attention on ways to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable children.

"The League has become the trusted authority for professionals who work with children, and the only national organization with members from both public and private agencies providing unique access and influence to all sectors of the children's services field," James-Brown says. "We can help lead our nation to revise, remove, and start anew our behaviors and actions toward our children."

Jennifer Michael is Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice; Madeleine Goldstein is a former intern in CWLA's Government Affairs department.


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