The Citizens' Committee for Children of New York and the Evolution of Child Advocacy (1945-1972)

By McDonald, Mary Jean | Child Welfare, January 1995 | Go to article overview

The Citizens' Committee for Children of New York and the Evolution of Child Advocacy (1945-1972)


McDonald, Mary Jean, Child Welfare


In a discussion paper entitled "Philanthropy in a Liberal Education," Payton [1991] described the functions of advocacy as articulating the failures of the government and the marketplace, as well as pointing out the inconstancies, inefficiencies, and other weaknesses of philanthropy itself. Advocacy, according to Payton, endows philanthropy with a social conscience. Those who study the activist role of philanthropy thus have an opportunity to explore what Geertz [1983: 36-54] called "the social history of the moral imagination."

Yet it is precisely this historical perspective that is overlooked by those who seek to understand advocacy. The emergence and development of advocacy has usually been described as a byproduct of the social activism of the 1960s, especially of the civil rights movement [Jenkins 1987]. This article suggests that advocacy has a longer and more interesting history, taking as its starting point the premise that an examination of that history can tell us much about the current effectiveness and impact of advocates on children's welfare.

This work is part of a larger study that traces the evolution of child advocacy within the context of the post-1945 welfare state. It focuses on the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, Inc. (CCC), which, soon after its incorporation in 1945, emerged as the most influential group concerned with New York City's children [Kahn et al. 1972]. A small, elite, nonprofit organization, CCC functioned as what we might today call a policy advocacy group, pursuing investigatory fact-finding and research, publishing reports and bulletins, establishing guidelines, and making policy and program recommendations. Most of this work was carried out by volunteer members, both lay and professional, and a small core staff. From its very beginning, CCC defined itself as an "advocate for children," although the term had not yet come into common use.

By the mid-1960s, changes in the broader currents of child welfare reform, as well as the emergence of a nascent child advocacy movement, challenged CCC's predominant position, and forced the group to reevaluate its advocacy program, strategies, and goals. Although it could be argued that the rise and fall of groups like CCC is simply a fact of organizational life--that groups unable to adapt to new political and social circumstances and attract new blood will inevitably ossify--CCC's history raises other important advocacy issues.

As advocates themselves have admitted, "precious little energy has been expended documenting and analyzing the experiences of child advocates" [Bing & Richart 1987]. Child advocacy has little recorded institutional memory on which to rely. This article seeks to correct that imbalance by exploring the changing content and meaning of child advocacy through the postwar decades. It assesses CCC's impact on the child, as well as the strategies it used, and suggests reasons for its influence. Finally, it examines briefly the changes in nonprofit child advocacy brought about by the different social, racial, and political realities of the 1960s. By documenting CCC's advocacy efforts and identifying the ingredients of its success, as well as its shortfalls, it is hoped that this article will provide instruction and inspiration to others trying to correct government inaction or indifference toward children.

Advocacy within the Postwar Context

Since at least the early nineteenth century, various individuals and groups have tried to improve the lot of poor children, particularly child laborers. In England in 1802, Sir Robert Peel obtained the passage of a bill in Parliament restricting the employment of apprentices to 12 hours a day [de Schweinitz 1943]. Seventeen years later, Peel and Robert Owen succeeded in passing a law forbidding the employment of children under nine years of age and restricting the work of children under age 16 to 12 hours a day [de Schweinitz 1943].

In this country, too, social activists have long articulated the interests of children. …

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