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The Origins of Modern Child Welfare: Liberalism, Interest Groups, and the Transformation of Public Policy in the 1970s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2011

Ethan G. Sribnick*
Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness


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Copyright © Donald Critchlow and Cambridge University Press 2011

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1. Edelman, Marian Wright, Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), ix.Google Scholar

2. See David Brian Robertson, “Introduction: Loss of Confidence and Policy Change in the 1970s,” and Milkis, Sidney M., “Remaking Government Institutions in the 1970s: Participatory Democracy and the Triumph of Administrative Politics,” in Loss of Confidence: Politics and Policy in the 1970s, ed. Robertson, David Brian (University Park, Pa., 1998), 1–18, 51–74Google Scholar.

3. The work of Jeffrey M. Berry is especially helpful. See Berry, Jeffrey M., Lobbying for the People: The Political Behavior of Public Interest Groups (Princeton, 1977)Google Scholar; Berry, Jeffrey M., The Interest Group Society, 2nd ed. (New York, 1989)Google Scholar; Berry, Jeffrey M., The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups (Washington, D.C., 1999)Google Scholar. See also McCann, Michael W., Taking Reform Seriously: Perspectives on Public Interest Liberalism (Ithaca, 1986).Google Scholar

4. Heclo, Hugh, “Sixties Civics,” in The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism, ed. Milkis, Sidney M. and Mileur, Jerome M. (Amherst, 2005), 54.Google Scholar

5. Good examples of the literature on changes to these institutions are Melnick, R. Shep, Between the Lines: Interpreting Welfare Rights (Washington, D.C., 1994)Google Scholar, and Zelizer, Julian E., On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and Its Consequences, 1948–2000 (New York, 2004)Google Scholar. See also Balogh, Brian, “Making Pluralism “Great”: Beyond a Recycled History of the Great Society,” in The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism, ed. Milkis, Sidney M. and Mileur, Jerome M. (Amherst, 2005).Google Scholar

6. The foundational text on agenda setting is Kingdon, John W., Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy (New York, 1984).Google Scholar

7. President of the United States, Proceedings of the Conference on the Care of Dependent Children (Washington, D.C., 1909), 10.Google Scholar

8. Gordon, Linda, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare (Cambridge, Mass., 1998)Google Scholar; Skocpol, Theda, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in United States (Cambridge, Mass., 1995).Google Scholar

9. For more on the history of child welfare policy, see Sribnick, Ethan G., “Rehabilitating Child Welfare: Children and Public Policy, 1945–1980,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 2007)Google Scholar. For a review of federal child welfare legislation, see Kasia O’Neill Murray and Sarah Gesiriech, “A Brief Legislative History of the Child Welfare System,” Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, Background Papers,

10. Knitzer, Jane, Allen, Mary Lee, and McGowan, Brenda, Children Without Homes: An Examination of Public Responsibility to Children in Out-of-Home Care (Washington, D.C., 1978), 8.Google Scholar

11. See Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, Public Law 96–272, 94 U.S. Statutes at Large, 500–535.

12. Borosage, Robert, Brown, Barbara, Friedman, Paul, Gewirtz, Paul, Jeffress, William, and Kelly, William, “The New Public Interest Lawyers,” Yale Law Journal 79 (May 1970): 1069–1152, 1081.Google Scholar

13. Wright as quoted in Polly Greenberg, The Devil Has Slippery Shoes: A Biased Biography of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (London, 1969), 30.Google Scholar

14. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Examination of the War on Poverty, Part 2: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty, 90th Cong., 1st sess., 10 April 1967, 642.Google Scholar

15. For more on the Child Development Group of Mississippi and its place in the civil rights movement, see Dittmer, John, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana, Ill., 1995), 363–88.Google Scholar

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17. Steiner, Gilbert Y., The Children’s Cause (Washington, D.C., 1976).Google Scholar

18. There was some dispute about the role the league should take within the CWLA leadership. Gilbert Steiner reports that while William Pierce kept the organization abreast of the developments in the child development legislation, Joseph Reid, the executive director of CWLA in New York, decided that the league should not take a leadership role in this area (Steiner, The Children’s Cause, 148).

19. The CWLA broadened its constituency in the 1940s when it opened membership to public agencies alongside the private child welfare agencies that had founded the organization. See “History of the Child Welfare League of America, Inc.,” 17 December 1987, 61–76, CWLA Supplement 1, box 44, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.

20. Steiner, , The Children’s Cause, 91Google Scholar; see also A New Deal for Children,” New York Times, 18 July 1971, sect. 4, p. 12.Google Scholar

21. Steiner, , The Children’s Cause, 109–13Google Scholar; Michel, Sonya, Children’s Interests/Mother’s Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy (New Haven, 1999), 248–50.Google Scholar

22. For more on Nixon’s veto of the Child Development Act, see Morgan, Kimberly, “A Child of the Sixties: The Great Society, the New Right, and the Politics of Federal Child Care,” Journal of Policy History 13 (2001): 229–32Google Scholar; Steiner, , The Children’s Cause, 113Google Scholar.

23. Child Welfare League of America, A Quick Trip Through CWLA’s History (Washington, D.C., 2003)Google Scholar; Steiner, , The Children’s Cause, 148Google Scholar. CWLA eventually became more like the public interest groups it was competing against in the 1970s. In 1977, it joined with Family Service America to spin off its accreditation functions as the Council on Accreditation. In 1985, the organization moved its headquarters from New York to Washington.

24. Wentworth, Eric, “Sugarman, Head Start Pioneer, to Leave HEW and Join Lindsay,” Washington Post, 2 April 1970, A4.Google Scholar

25. “Dear Friend” letter dated November 1970, headed “Temporary Committee for the Children’s Lobby” and signed by Jule M. Sugarman, as cited in Steiner, The Children’s Cause, 164.

26. Clines, Francis X., “A Children’s Lobby with no Tax-Exempt Status Set up by Sugarman,” New York Times, 13 December 1970, 1.Google Scholar

27. William Pierce to Joseph Reid, 5 March 1972, Re: The Children’s Lobby, William Pierce Papers, Box 14, folder “Reid 1972,” Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota (hereafter cited as Pierce Papers).

28. Steiner, , The Children’s Cause, 162–63.Google Scholar

29. W. Pierce to J. H. Reid, 21 December 1971, “Meeting, 12/20/71, in Washington, on the Children’s Lobby,” Pierce Papers, Box 14, folder “Reid, 1970–71.”

30. W. Pierce to J. Reid, 10 January 1972, “Meeting, Various Parties, to discuss Children’s Lobby,” Pierce Papers, Box 14, folder “Reid, 1972.”

31. Pierce to JHR, 28 February 1973, A Contingency Plan, Pierce Papers, Box 14, folder “Reid, January–April 1973.”

32. Steiner, , The Children’s Cause, 173–75Google Scholar. Edelman’s success in raising foundation money was particularly important to the organization’s long-term success. She had found sufficient support from foundations, starting with an unrequested $25,000 grant, to set up the WRP. As she recalled, “With one exception, every application I have put into a foundation was requested.”Edelman attributed this to the fact that in Mississippi “you got to know all the foundation people in a different capacity when you weren’t asking for money for yourself.” (The New Public Interest Lawyers,” Yale Law Journal 79 (1970): 1112.Google Scholar) A grant from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity helped support the Harvard Center for Law and Education, where Edelman was the director in the years she worked on creating CDF. The New World and Field Foundations provided grants to cover the startup costs of the new organization. (Children’s Defense Fund, “A Chronology of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Development,”undated.)

33. Marian Wright Edelman to Elizabeth Wickenden, 20 April 1972, “A Children’s Defense Fund—Summary of Initial Projects,” National Social Welfare Assembly Records, Box 57, folder “SIP, EW Correspondence and Memoranda, April–June 1972” Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota; see also Edelman to Justine Wise Polier, 20 April 1972, Justine Wise Polier Papers, Box 19, folder 222, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University (hereafter Polier Papers).

34. William L. Pierce to Joseph H. Reid, 20 March 1973, Pierce Papers, Box 14, folder “Reid, Jan.–April 1973.”

35. Kovach, Bill, “New Unit to Fight for Child Rights,” New York Times, 23 May 1973, 16, col. 1.Google Scholar

36. Berry, , Lobbying for the People, 7.Google Scholar

37. McCann, Michael W., Taking Reform Seriously, 17–19, 24Google Scholar. Note that McCann does not include CDF in his survey of public interest groups since he argues that advocating on behalf of children is not seeking a “collective good.”However, Berry considers CDF a public interest group, naming the organization’s founder and director, Marian Wright Edelman, as a superstar of public interest lobbying. Berry, , Interest Group Society, 96.Google Scholar

38. An Interview with Marian Wright Edelman,” Harvard Educational Review 44 (February 1974): 67.Google Scholar

39. Ibid., 54.

40. Milkis, “Remaking Government Institutions in the 1970s,” 61.

41. Ibid., 59.

42. See Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, and Kremens v. Bartley, 431 U.S. 119. See also the correspondence over CDF’s amicus brief in Kremens v. Bartley, Polier Papers, Box 12, folder 131.

43. Brenda McGowan and Jane Knitzer, Preliminary Thoughts on Bill of Rights Document, December 1974, Polier Papers, Box 19, folder 223.

44. McCann, , Taking Rights Seriously, 79, 90.Google Scholar

45. “Interview with Marian Wright Edelman,” 54.

46. For more on the proliferation of expertise, in this case surrounding nuclear power, see Balogh, Brian, Chain Reaction: Expert Debate and Public Participation in American Commercial Nuclear Power, 1945–1975(Cambridge, 1991).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

47. Maas, Henry S. and Engler, Richard E. Jr., Children in Need of Parents(New York, 1959), 356.Google Scholar

48. Sribnick, “Rehabilitating Child Welfare,” 123–84.

49. Goldstein, Joseph, Freud, Anna, and Solnit, Albert J., Beyond the Best Interests of the Child (New York, 1973), 4, 6, 31–49, 53–54.Google Scholar

50. Ibid.,7–8.

51. Ibid., 31–52, 23–28, 39.

52. Billingsley, Andrew and Giovannoni, Jeanne M., Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare(New York, 1972), 219.Google Scholar

53. Jenkins, Shirley, “Child Welfare as a Class System,” in Children and Decent People, ed. Schorr, Alvin L. (New York, 1974), 3–4.Google Scholar

54. Wickenden to Cohen, 1 August 1974, National Social Welfare Assembly Records, Box 53, folder “SIP [Committee on Social Issues and Policies], Children’s Legislation, 1973–1975,” Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.

55. Fanshel, David and Shinn, Eugene B., Children in Foster Care: A Longitudinal Investigation (New York, 1978), 491, 479.Google Scholar

56. Ibid.

57. U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Children Served by Public Welfare Agencies and Voluntary Child Welfare Agencies and Institutions, March 1971 (Washington, D.C., March 1973)Google Scholar, as cited in Kadushin, Alfred, Child Welfare Services, 2nd ed. (New York, 1974), 401.Google Scholar

58. Steiner, Gilbert Y., The Futility of Family Policy (Washington, D.C., 1981), 131–33Google Scholar; Knitzer, Jane, Allen, Mary Lee, and McGowan, Brenda, Children Without Homes: An Examination of Public Responsibility to Children in Out-of-Home Care (Washington, D.C., 1978), 2 n. 2.Google Scholar

59. In 1976, as part of its efforts to clarify and expand children’s rights, CDF joined a federal class-action suit against the state of Louisiana on behalf of hundreds of children from the state who had been removed from their families and housed in institutions in Texas. This suit brought national attention to the lack of oversight in the use of federal funds used in foster care. Most important, it helped bring this issue to the attention of a recently elected congressman from California, Representative George Miller. A letter from Congressmen George Miller and John Brademas to the General Accounting Office requesting an investigation of foster care placements using federal funds specifically mentions the case brought by CDF in Louisiana, Gary W. v. William Stewart; Comptroller of the United States, Children in Foster Care Institutions—Steps Government Can Take to Improve Their Care (Washington, D.C., 1977), 35.Google Scholar

60. Knitzer, , Allen, , and McGowan, , Children Without Homes, 5–9.Google Scholar

61. Ibid., 6.

62. Ibid., 10.

63. Ibid., 11. Before 1980, there were essentially two federal sources for child welfare funding. Funding for child welfare services was included in the original Social Security Act of 1935. Later amendments provided assistance under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC) for children who would have been eligible for AFDC but who were unable to be cared for by their parents and therefore were placed in foster care. CDF advocated barring the use of child welfare service funding for foster care maintenance and placing a limit on AFDC support for foster care.

64. MaryLee Allen, interview by author, 21 September 2009.

65. Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, Public Law 96–272, 94 U.S. Statutes at Large, 503; see also H.R. 7200, 95th Cong., 1st sess. (1977), as printed in U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Public Assistance, Public Assistance Amendments of 1977, 95th Cong., 1st sess., July 1977, 35.

66. Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, 94 U.S. Statutes at Large, 510Google Scholar; See also H.R. 7200, 37–38.

67. Ibid., 511; see also H.R. 7200, 37.

68. Ibid., 511; see also H.R. 7200, 39–40.

69. Ibid., 504–6; see also H.R. 7200, 46–49.

70. U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Public Assistance, Public Assistance Amendments of 1977, 521.Google ScholarPubMed

71. Steiner, , The Futility of Family Policy, 148.Google Scholar

72. Ibid., 148–52.

73. Senate Committee on Finance, Proposals Related to Social and Child Welfare Services, Adoption Assistance, and Foster Care, 96th Cong., 1st sess., 24 September 1979, 174.Google Scholar

74. The act authorized $266 million for child welfare services, but the highest appropriation the program had ever received was $56.5 million. The law set a cap on what states could receive from the AFDC foster care program, which for most states would equal the funds they received in 1978 increased by 21.2 percent and adjusted for inflation. However, this cap would not be enforced unless child welfare services appropriations were increased to $163.550 million for 1981, $220 million for 1982, and $266 million for 1983 and 1984. The low level of the child welfare services appropriation made the cap meaningless after 1981. Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, Public Law 96–272, Sec. 474, 94 U.S. Statutes at Large, 506.

75. Maas, and Engler, , Children in Need of Parents.Google Scholar

76. Steiner, , The Futility of Family Policy, 153.Google Scholar

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78. Federal funding for Child Welfare Services reached $163.6 million in 1981, but after that they decreased to $156.3 million in 1982 and 1983. Appropriations were increased again in 1984 to $165 million and in 1985 to $200 million. Federal spending on the foster care program reached $308.8 million in 1981, $373.8 million in 1982, $394.8 in 1983, $445.2 in 1984, and $546.2 in 1985. House Committee on Ways and Means, 1990 Green Book, 5 June 1990, 759, table 2. In 1978, before the passage of the Child Welfare and Adoption Assistance Act, the federal share of the AFDC-foster care program was $208 million.

79. Schwartz, Ira M. and Fishman, Gideon, Kids Raised by the Government(Westport, Conn., 1999), 55.Google Scholar

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