In 1910, Laura H. Carnell wrote Representative Joseph Hampton Moore, whose congressional district encompassed parts of the city of Philadelphia, about the needs of children. Carnell, a prominent educator, dean of Philadelphia’s Temple University, and member of the International Child Labor Committee, urged Moore to support proposed legislation to create a child welfare agency. “There is so much money and effort wasted in scattered undertakings for the child, that the need of intelligent directorship is very great.” The letter was referred to the Committee on Labor.
Beginning in 1903, like-minded individuals and groups, such as the National Child Labor Committee, lobbied the White House and Congress to establish a national children’s bureau. Between 1906 and 1912, several versions of legislation to create a federal children’s bureau were introduced in Congress, each ultimately failing to become law. Hoping to promote the idea and boost support for it in Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt invited participants to the first White House Conference on Children in January 1909. This meeting of activists working on child welfare issues convened to discuss these issues and to endorse legislation to create a children’s bureau. The following month, Roosevelt sent a special presidential message to Congress urging passage of pending legislation. “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,” Roosevelt told legislators, “especially with those who are in one way or another handicapped by misfortune.”
On April 2, 1912, during debate in the House on the Senate’s version of the legislation, Representative James M. Cox proclaimed, “If the highest authorities in the land on this purely humanitarian subject are of one mind, then it occurs to me that Congress would be lax in its duty to humanity if it failed to create this bureau.” The legislation that became P.L. 62-116 establishing the Children’s Bureau, was signed into law by President William Howard Taft on April 9, 1912. The Bureau, housed within the Department of Labor and Commerce, was tasked with investigating and reporting on child welfare issues, in particular “the questions of infant mortality, the birth rate, orphanage, juvenile courts, desertion, dangerous occupations, accidents and diseases of children, employment, legislation affecting children in the several States and Territories.” In recognition of the significant part women played in its establishment, President Taft named Julia C. Lathrop as the inaugural chief of the Children’s Bureau—the first woman to head a bureau within a federal agency in the country’s history.