Julia Lathrop (1858-1932) was an American social reformer famously known for her role as the first Chief of the United States Children’s Bureau. She was actively involved in the child-saving movement that encouraged the formation of the first juvenile justice system in the United States. Early in her career, Lathrop worked in her father’s law firm and was trained to perceive both the legislative and interpersonal issues in her community (Addams). Before chiefing the Bureau, Lathrop moved into the Hull House in Chicago in 1890 with other social reformers such as Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Lathrop was highly influenced by the industrial expansion and the growing population of the early 20th century as she watched the composition of her neighborhood shift with the waves of immigrant families (Addams). She walked alongside working class families as they struggled as housing, employment, and health care became strained by the increasing population (Addams). Troubled by working-class experiences, Lathrop acknowledged increased poverty as the greatest detriment to family wellbeing, and consequently, the welfare of children (1914). Over her advantageous career, Julia Lathrop pursued positive peace tactics to abolish the economic, logistical, and social barriers to child welfare and worked actively to create a reformative juvenile justice system.
Lathrop often spoke publicly about the increasing rates of infant mortality and child labor, which she described as “the best single index that we have of social conditions” (Lathrop 1914); it was these socio-economic conditions, she believed, that mediated the relationship between child welfare and juvenile delinquency. Children during this early 20th century were suffering. Many children were forced to work in factories instead of attending school to help their families financially, and illiteracy fostered delinquency in cramped neighborhoods (Lathrop 1919). The cycle of oppression, in the eyes of Julia Lathrop, was turned by the hand of poverty (Addams). She believed engaging with the larger issues at play in the lives of the working class would in turn address infant mortality, child labor, and juvenile delinquency and establish peace within the community.
Julia Lathrop’s philosophy in relation to juvenile justice was that human life had intrinsic value from birth to death (Lathrop 1914). However, the system of her era did not reflect this philosophy in the ways it prosecuted crime. Lathrop was convinced that “the great primary service of the court is that it lifts up the truth and compels us to see that wastage of human life whose sign is the child in court” (Rosenthal 305). The children residing in correctional facilities at this time were primarily boys aging 9 years old to 16 years old, with their crimes as benign as “playing with coal” to “assault with a deadly weapon” (Lathrop 1912, 2). Reoffending was also common, pointing to a greater disservice by and need for reformation in the system. The child-saving movement of the early 20th century, of which Lathrop was a member, worked to curb the “unquestionable imperfections” of the justice system and revise the inhumane and inconsistent treatment of convicted youths to make reformation possible (Lathrop 1912, 1; Odala 553). Lathrop argued the court should be more preventative rather than punitive since the conditions that encouraged delinquency were products of poverty rather than bad behavior (Odala 552).
Julia Lathrop targeted the structural flaws in the justice system as it prosecuted crimes of delinquent children without addressing the root of the problem: family welfare. As chief of the United States Children’s Bureau, Lathrop believed the “most precious possession of the town - [was] its young life” (Lathrop 1912, 9); thus, the programs implemented prioritized education, maternal health, and the safety of youth as assets to overall community wellbeing (Lindenmeyer). Julia Lathrop pushed the Bureau to designate funds to support single, working mothers and to invest in the public schools (Rosenthal 309). These facets of society, when secure, could protect and encourage the successful raising of America’s youth and prevent delinquency in the community (Lathrop 1912, 6). The United States Children’s Bureau, with the passion of Julia Lathrop and the child-savers, provided the backing necessary to establish the first juvenile court that would represent and reform young offenders separately from adults (Platt). This new correctional system was unprecedented in that it kept young offenders in their homes and schools, instead of institutionalizing them for their crimes; retaining normalcy in the lives of delinquent children contributed to their adoption of prosocial behavior (Rosenthal 307).
The juvenile court fueled the continuing conversation on social justice behind prison walls; as Julia Lathrop identified, the juvenile court “reveals a great social situation and thereby aids the greatest aid to social justice” (Lathrop 1912, 10). Today, the justice system looks differently than it did a century ago because of the activism of women like Julia Lathrop who envisioned a more constructive reaction to crime (Lindenmeyer 305). Utilizing restorative practices with young offenders continues to counter rates of reoffending and social welfare programs continue to support low-income families and struggling communities. Seeing and understanding the bigger picture inspires positive peace-building, as it provides an opportunity to restore and sustain the advancement of society for the benefit of all.
Addams, Jane. My Friend, Julia Lathrop. University of Illinois Press, 1935.
Lathrop, Julia. “Child Labor Big Problem: Julia Lathrop Hopes for a Way Out From Recent Adverse
Decision by the Supreme Court.” Chicago Daily Tribune (January 1919).
Lathrop, Julia. "Introduction" in The Delinquent Child and the Home, 1-10. By Sophonisba Preston
Breckinridge and Edith Abbott. New York: Russell Sage Fund, 1912.
Lathrop, Julia. “How We May Save Another Chicago.” Chicago Daily Tribune (April 1914).
Lindenmeyer, Kriste. A Right to Childhood: The US Children's Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912-46.
University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Odala, Violet. “The Spectrum for Child Justice in the International Human Rights Framework: From
“Reclaiming the Delinquent Child” to Restorative Justice.” American University International Law Review 27, no. 3 (2012): 543-580.
Platt, Anthony. "The Rise of the Child-Saving Movement: A Study in Social Policy and Correctional
Reform." The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 381, no. 1 (1969): 21-38.
Rosenthal, Marguerite. “The Children’s Bureau and the Juvenile Court: Delinquency Policy 1912-1940.”
Social Service Review 60, no. 2 (June 1986): 303-318.