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The Children’s Bureau’s Tradition of Leadership

Grace Abbott, Chief of the Children's Bureau from 1921 to 1934. (Associated Press)In August 2013, President Obama appointed JooYeun Chang as the new Associate Commissioner of the Children's Bureau. Chang is the most recent in a long history of leaders at the Bureau, a history detailed in the new e-book The Children's Bureau Legacy: Ensuring the Right to Childhood.

"It is an honor and a privilege to work for the oldest government agency in the world that is solely dedicated to protecting children and families," said Chang. "That work began with Julia Lathrop, the Bureau's first chief and a pioneer in research-based interventions that truly saved a generation of children. I look forward to working with our staff, grantees, and other stakeholders in the field to continue the good work being done to protect children from abuse and neglect, help children and youth achieve permanency, and strengthen American families."

The idea for the Children's Bureau was suggested as early as 1900—12 years before it was established—by Florence Kelley, a member of the National Consumers League. Kelley regularly spoke on child labor issues and in her lectures proposed a Federal Commission on Children.
In 1903, Lillian Wald, founder of New York City's Henry Street Settlement, suggested to Kelley that the government should establish a federal Children's Bureau to collect and disseminate information concerning all children.

Kelley brought the recommendation to Edward Devine, a trustee of the National Child Labor Committee and associate of President Theodore Roosevelt. While the first piece of legislation to create the Bureau was introduced in 1906, the law was not signed until 1912. Julia Lathrop, a social reformer during the Settlement Movement, was selected as the Bureau's first chief and became the first woman to head a federal agency. She ushered in research-based investigations to evaluate infant and maternal mortality, child labor, and other issues plaguing American society. Lathrop was nicknamed "America's first official mother."

President John F. Kennedy and Katherine Brownell Oettinger, Chief of the Children’s Bureau. (Abbie Rowe, White House PhotographsIn 1917, Lathrop appointed Grace Abbott, another prominent social reformer of the time, Director of the Bureau's Child Labor Division. Abbott would become the Bureau's second chief, the first woman in U.S. history to be nominated for a presidential cabinet post (for Secretary of Labor in the Herbert Hoover administration), and one of the first female broadcasters to a national audience when she hosted the NBC Radio series, "Your Child," beginning in 1929. Abbott was nicknamed "The Mother of America’s 43 million children."

The first five Children's Bureau chiefs were women—Lathrop, Abbott, Katharine Lenroot, Martha Eliot, and Katherine Oettinger—overseeing changes in the Bureau's work to address the tremendous changes in America between 1912 and 1968. In fact, chiefs Abbott, Lenroot, and Eliot authored pieces of the Social Security Act pertaining to child welfare.

As the Children’s Bureau’s new Associate Commissioner, Chang administers over $7 billion in federal programming to support the nation's child protection, foster care, guardianship, and adoption programs. Prior to her appointment to the Children's Bureau, Chang was the Senior Director of Public Policy at Casey Family Programs. In this position, she worked closely with state and county child welfare leaders to improve and enhance child welfare practice. She also worked with Congress on opportunities to improve national child welfare policy. Her areas of expertise in federal and state policy include child abuse and neglect, foster care and adoption, children's mental health, child welfare financing, and kinship care.

For more information on the Children's Bureau's storied history and the history of its leaders, read The Children's Bureau Legacy: Ensuring the Right to Childhood:

First Photo: Grace Abbott, Chief of the Children's Bureau from 1921 to 1934. (Associated Press)

Second Photo: President John F. Kennedy walks with Katherine Brownell Oettinger, Chief of the Children’s Bureau, before delivering an address at the Children’s Bureau 50th Anniversary Celebration. (Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

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