Journal Issue: Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1998
The History of Child Protection
The history of concern for the protection of children has been marked by several themes: respect for the privacy of most families, impatience with the perceived failings of poor and immigrant families, and reliance on the strategy of removing mistreated children from their homes and neighborhoods to be raised in government-sanctioned (though often inadequate) environments. Until the middle of this century, champions of child protection hesitated to intervene in most families, but they closely scrutinized child rearing by the very poor and had few compunctions about sending children from those families to institutions or homes far away, where the children might make a new start on life.From Private Charities to Government Action
The idea that children should be protected from cruelty, exploitation, and want was not always present. Past standards for child rearing treated floggings, child labor, confinement, and deprivation of food as acceptable methods that families might use to discipline and train their children.20 Only in the past century did any organized intervention emerge on behalf of children whose parents failed to care for them in a manner considered acceptable at the time, as the article by Schene in this journal issue explains. Only in the past 25 years has the government assumed a major role in child protection.
Until the late 1800s, Schene reports, community leaders felt responsible for protecting only orphaned or abandoned children, whom they placed in grim institutions, or sent to work for their board as apprentices or servants. In the early 1900s, poverty, neglect, immorality, and ignorance preoccupied the reformers who created Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Children's Aid Societies, and settlement houses.3 The aim of these charities was most often to rescue the child from the perceived degradation of the family and its surroundings; little thought was given to the claims such struggling parents might have to their children.21 Physical forms of cruelty received much less attention, since choices of discipline were considered the province of the parents.
Neglect and the material aspects of child rearing were also central to the government's first efforts to improve the lot of children, which came with the Social Security Act of 1935. That landmark legislation not only established a cash assistance program that helped widowed and abandoned mothers to provide for their children;22 it also offered the states funds for child welfare, which usually went to pay for foster care.
Attention to child abuse, as distinct from child neglect and poverty, burst forth in the mid-1960s with the identification by doctors of "the battered child syndrome," a pattern of unexplained physical injuries such as multiple burns or broken bones. A new image of child maltreatment seized the public eye: behind the closed doors of their homes, parents from all social classes might brutally beat their children, then escape detection by fabricating accidents and falls.3,20 The reaction of governments across the United States was swift and consistent. Spurred by the 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which provided model legislation and limited federal funding, all of the states passed mandatory reporting laws and set up procedures for investigating suspected cases of child abuse and neglect.23 The government entity known as child protective services was born—a product of public outrage at the shocking physical evidence of unchecked parental power, anger, and violence. Unfortunately, experience soon demonstrated that outrage over a problem may not bring with it the political consensus, tax dollars, or know-how required to solve that problem.Foster Care or Family Preservation?
During the next 24 years, the problems the new CPS agencies were charged with addressing seemed to become only more widespread and more difficult to solve. Public concern for children's safety, codified in reporting laws, led to a rapid escalation in the identification of mistreated children, whose suffering was previously seen as a private matter. The consensus that abuse by parents was repugnant also made the removal of their children seem an appropriate, justified response. The numbers of children placed in the foster care system grew, in part because state laws and agency regulations created a process for removing a child from home but said far less about how to help families or decide whether to return a child home.9 Stays in foster care turned out to be long and chaotic for many children, who were moved from place to place and sometimes mistreated in their foster homes.24
Awareness of the problems children faced once they entered foster care swung the pendulum of child welfare practice toward appreciation of the role that birth families play in children's lives. In 1980, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act required CPS agencies to make "reasonable efforts" to provide family services that might prevent placement or permit the child to return from foster care. Increasingly, child welfare leaders embraced the philosophy of family support and preservation, discussed in the articles by Jacquelyn McCroskey and William Meezan and by Jill Berrick in this journal issue. This philosophy "emphasizes the inherent strengths of virtually all families, considers the family to be the best place for children to be raised, and gives priority to preserving the permanence of the child's intimate relationships with family members when at all possible."25
While the value of family ties was embraced in many social service circles, explains the article by Courtney, government spending still tilted toward out-of-home care. The 1980s saw sharp reductions in federal and state funding for the traditional services that support struggling families—from mental health care to child care to crisis assistance.26 Moreover, the mandated investigations of maltreatment reports had first call on limited child welfare budgets, further constraining the resources available for services.9 In 1993, the federal government attempted to redress this imbalance by providing modest new funding for family support programs designed to prevent child abuse and neglect, and for family preservation programs designed to help families with maltreatment problems remain together safely.27 McCroskey and Meezan argue that this legislation's focus on family-centered service strategies provided a needed counterweight to the emphasis on child removals through its hopeful presumption that many troubled families can be saved.
Experience demonstrated, however, that the family-focused services that offer critical help to some children and families fail to help others, sometimes leading to tragedy. (The commentary by Lowry in this journal issue discusses this problem.) Critics called attention to the limited evidence that family preservation service models were effective, 4,5,11 and a rash of sensational cases highlighted in the media depicted the risks to individual children who were left in the care of abusive families.3 Consequently, the pendulum of child welfare practice has recently swung back with the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (Public Law 105-89), which declares the priority of child safety. While it increases the funds for family support and family preservation programs, this law also shortens the time parents have to regain custody of their children before the state initiates proceedings to terminate their parental rights. Adoption is now promoted as a solution for children who are not safe at home.The CPS Mandate
In sum, the 25- to 30-year history of CPS, the nation's experiment with empowering a government agency to identify and intervene in families where children are abused or neglected, shows the public's passionate desire to "do something" about child abuse. But it also reveals the nation's ambivalence about what to do, and its impatience with the efforts of CPS to do the right thing. Few government agencies have a charge that is as emotionally laden as the CPS mandate to protect child victims of abuse and neglect, and to recommend abrogating the rights of parents to raise their offspring. Controversy about the goals of CPS and frustration with the strategies available to achieve those goals have impeded the success of the entire undertaking.
Many debates turn on two of the three questions noted earlier in this analysis. Should the CPS role of intervening in families be broad or narrowly focused? And—beyond CPS—what supports and services should society offer vulnerable families to prevent maltreatment and heal the wounds it causes? These two questions are examined below, accompanied by recommendations for action. The third question raised at the start of this article—what will it take to move toward an effective system of child protection?—is addressed in the conclusion of this article.