Special Message

February 15, 1909

To the Senate and House of Representatives:

On January 25-26, 1909, there assembled in this city, on my invitation, a conference on the care of dependent children. To this conference there came from nearly every State in the Union men and women actively engaged in the care of dependent children, and they represented all the leading religious bodies.

The subject considered is one of high importance to the well-being of the nation. 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.

Each of these children represents either a potential addition to the productive capacity and the enlightened citizenship of the nation, or, if allowed to suffer from neglect, a potential addition to the destructive forces of the community. The ranks of criminals and other enemies of society are recruited in an altogether undue proportion from children bereft of their natural homes and left without sufficient care.

The interests of the nation are involved in the welfare of this army of children no less than in our great material affairs.

Notwithstanding a wide diversity of views and methods represented in the conference, and notwithstanding the varying legislative enactments and policies of the States from which the members came, the conference, at the close of its sessions, unanimously adopted a series of declarations expressing the conclusions which they had reached. These constitute a wise, constructive, and progressive programme of child-caring work. If given full effect by the proper agencies, existing methods and practices in almost every community would be profoundly and advantageously modified.

More significant even than the contents of the declarations is the fact that they were adopted without dissenting vote and with every demonstration of hearty approval on the part of all present. They constitute a standard of accepted opinion by which each community should measure the adequacy of its existing methods and to which each community should seek to conform its legislation and its practice.

The keynote of the conference was expressed in these words:

Home life is the highest and finest product of civilization. Children should not be deprived of it except for urgent and compelling reasons.

Surely poverty alone should not disrupt the home. Parents of good character suffering from temporary misfortune, and above all deserving mothers fairly well able to work but deprived of the support of the normal breadwinner, should be given such aid as may be necessary to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of their children. The widowed or deserted mother, if a good woman, willing to work and to do her best, should ordinarily be helped in such fashion as will enable her to bring up her children herself in their natural home. Children from unfit homes, and children who have no homes, who must be cared for by charitable agencies, should, so far as practicable, be cared for in families.

I transmit herewith for your information a copy of the conclusions reached by the conference, of which the following is a brief summary:

1. Home care .--Children of worthy parents or deserving mothers should, as a rule, be kept with their parents at home.

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.

4. Cottage system .--Institutions should be on the cottage plan with small units, as far as possible.

5. Incorporation. --Agencies caring for dependent children should be incorporated, on approval of a suitable state board.

6. State inspection. --The State should inspect the work of all agencies which care for dependent children.

7. Inspection of educational work .--Educational work of institutions and agencies caring for dependent children should be supervised by state educational authorities.

8. Facts and records. --Complete histories of dependent children and their parents, based upon personal investigation and supervision, should be recorded for guidance of child-caring agencies.

9. Physical care .--Every needy child should receive the best medical and surgical attention, and be instructed in health and hygiene.

10. Cooperation .--Local child-caring agencies should cooperate and establish joint bureaus of information.

11. Undesirable legislation. --Prohibitive legislation against transfer of dependent children between States should be repealed.

12. Permanent organization.- -A permanent organization for work along the lines of these resolutions is desirable.

13. Federal children's bureau .--Establishment of a federal children's bureau is desirable, and enactment of pending bill is earnestly recommended.

14. Suggests special message to Congress favoring federal children's bureau and other legislation applying above principles to District of Columbia and other federal territory.

While it is recognized that these conclusions can be given their fullest effect only by the action of the several States or communities concerned, or of their charitable agencies, the conference requested me, in section 14 of the conclusions, to send to you a message recommending federal action.

There are pending in both Houses of Congress bills for the establishment of a children's bureau, i.e., Senate bill No. 8323 and House bill No. 24148. These provide for a children's bureau in the Department of the Interior, which

shall investigate and report upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life, and shall especially investigate the questions of infant mortality, the birth rate, physical degeneracy, orphanage, juvenile delinquency and juvenile courts, desertion and illegitimacy, dangerous occupations, accidents and diseases of children of the working classes, employment, legislation affecting children in the several States and Territories, and such other facts as have a bearing upon the health, efficiency, character, and training of children.

One of the needs felt most acutely by the conference was that of accurate information concerning these questions relating to childhood. The National Government not only has the unquestioned right of research in such vital matters, but is the only agency which can effectively conduct such general inquiries as are needed for the benefit of all our citizens. In accordance with the unanimous request of the conference, I therefore most heartily urge your favorable action on these measures.

It is not only discreditable to us as a people that there is now no recognized and authoritative source of information upon these subjects relating to child life, but in the absence of such information as should be supplied by the Federal Government many abuses have gone unchecked; for public sentiment, with its great corrective power, can only be aroused by full knowledge of the facts. In addition to such information as the Census Bureau and other existing agencies of the Federal Government already provide, there remains much to be ascertained through lines of research not now authorized by law; and there should be correlation and dissemination of the knowledge obtained without any duplication of effort or interference with what is already being done. There are few things more vital to the welfare of the nation than accurate and dependable knowledge of the best methods of dealing with children, especially with those who are in one way or another handicapped by misfortune; and in the absence of such knowledge each community is left to work out its own problem without being able to learn of and profit by the success or failure of other communities along the same lines of endeavor. The bills for the establishment of the children's bureau are advocated not only by this conference, but by a large number of national organizations that are disinterestedly working for the welfare of children, and also by philanthropic, educational, and religious bodies in all parts of the country.

I further urge that such legislation be enacted as may be necessary in order to bring the laws and practices in regard to the care of dependent children in all federal territory into harmony with the other conclusions reached by the conference.


Congress took a step in the direction of the conclusions of this conference in 1893, when, on the recommendation of the late Amos G. Warner, then superintendent of charities for the District of Columbia, the Board of Children's Guardians was created, with authority, among other things, to place children in family homes. That board has made commendable progress, and its work should be strengthened and extended.

I recommend legislation for the District of Columbia in accordance with the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth sections of the conclusions of the conference, as follows:

1. That the approval of the Board of Charities be required for the incorporation of all child-caring agencies, as well as amendments of the charter of any benevolent corporation which includes child-caring work, and that other than duly incorporated agencies be forbidden to engage in the care of needy children. This legislation is needed in order to insure the fitness and responsibility of those who propose to undertake the care of helpless children. Such laws have long been in satisfactory operation in several of the larger States of the Union.

2. That the Board of Charities, through its duly authorized agents, shall inspect the work of all agencies which care for dependent children, whether by institutional or by home-finding methods, and whether supported by public or private funds. The State has always jealously guarded the interests of children whose parents have been able to leave them property by requiring the appointment of a guardian, under bond, accountable directly to the courts, even though there be a competent surviving parent. Surely the interests of the child who is not only an orphan but penniless ought to be no less sacred than those of the more fortunate orphan who inherits property. If the protection of the Government is necessary in the one case, it is even more necessary in the other. If we are to require that only incorporated institutions shall be allowed to engage in this responsible work, it is necessary to provide for public inspection, lest the State should become the unconscious partner of those who either from ignorance or inefficiency are unsuited to deal with the problem.

3. That the education of children in orphan asylums and other similar institutions in the District of Columbia be under the supervision of the board of education, in order that these children may enjoy educational advantages equal to those of the other children. Normal school life comes next to normal home life in the process of securing the fullest development of the child.

4. That all agencies engaged in child-caring work in the District of Columbia be required by law to adopt adequate methods of investigation and make permanent records relative to children under their care, and to exercise faithful personal supervision over their wards until legally adopted or otherwise clearly beyond the need of further supervision; the forms and methods of such investigation, records, and supervision to be prescribed and enforced by the Board of Charities.

I deem such 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.

I herewith transmit a copy of the full text of the proceedings.


Theodore Roosevelt, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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