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Journal Issue: Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1998

Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect: Analysis and Recommendations
Mary B. Larner Carol S. Stevenson Richard E. Behrman


On December 15, 1997, the cover of People magazine showed the solemn and frightened face of a two-year-old named Peter who was on his way to a New York City shelter after violence broke out in his home. The article inside the magazine, called "A Day in the Life," was unusual in its approach to the emotional issue of child abuse. Rather than give a wrenching account of Peter's experiences, it focused on the unseen adult holding Peter's hand—one of the child protection caseworkers described here as "the last line of defense for America's children."1

Responding to calls from doctors, police, teachers, and grandparents who believe a child has been mistreated, caseworkers knock on doors, ask personal questions, look inside refrigerators, and check children's bodies for bruises and burn marks. They have the power to take children temporarily from their homes and parents, if the risk of harm appears severe. They also have the discretion to determine that nothing serious happened, or that it is safe for the child to remain home while the parents are urged to change. The stakes are high. Overestimating the degree of danger could needlessly shatter a family and rupture the child's closest relationships. Underestimating the danger could mean suffering or even death. The decisions caseworkers make every day would challenge King Solomon, yet most of them lack Solomon's wisdom, few enjoy his credibility with the public, and none command his resources.

The nation's fight against the heartbreaking problem of child abuse and neglect is led not by Solomon but by child protective services (CPS), the government agency that employs the caseworkers described above and that is charged with investigating and responding to allegations of child abuse and neglect. Child protection is a function of state government that is ruled by state law but supported by significant federal funding and—in many states—carried out by local government entities. For simplicity, the generic term "CPS" is used here to refer to these varied state and local agencies.

Compared to the schools that most of us attended and to the police departments we see in our communities and on TV dramas, CPS is a mysterious agency. We know it is there to tackle the "national nightmare"1 of child abuse and neglect that most of us cannot bear to think about. Few of us want to know the details. But without public attention to those details, there cannot be a consensus on the expectations, boundaries, powers, or budgets that should frame government efforts to protect children from harm by their parents or caretakers.

The details, as reported in this journal issue and a flurry of recent reports,2-7 indicate that CPS is overmatched by the scope and complexity of its task. The spread of substance abuse among parents, rates of family breakup, deepening pockets of poverty, and cuts in government services have intensified family problems and reduced options for helping. In 1995, nearly 3 million children were reported to CPS as possible victims of child abuse or neglect—triple the number of reports made just 20 years ago. CPS has the dubious distinction of being among the most maligned public agencies. In 1991, the National Commission on Children charged: "If the nation had deliberately designed a system that would frustrate the professionals who staff it, anger the public who finance it, and abandon the children who depend on it, it could not have done a better job than the present child welfare system."8

Expected to straddle two core values of U.S. society—the protection of children and respect for the privacy of the family—CPS is accused of both "unwarranted interference in private life" and "irresponsible inaction" when children are truly threatened.9 It is called incompetent, "confused, mismanaged, and staffed with untrained workers."10 An inadequate knowledge base undergirds the actions of its staff.11-13 But, because children's lives are at stake, CPS cannot stop its work while the public debates its mission, or while researchers discover which interventions might help which families. This plane must be fixed while it flies through the air.

Against this backdrop of controversy, this journal issue examines how CPS agencies tackle the challenge of child protection.14 The articles place typical agency practices in a historical context, and consider the dimensions of the child maltreatment problem and the anatomy of government funding. They examine the help that community-based programs and kin caregivers can offer vulnerable families, and they review proposals for restructuring the nation's approach to child protection. The main section of the journal closes with four commentaries on policy dilemmas and directions for reform, which give a sampling of the ideas being considered by experts and policymakers.

This article reviews the main themes of the journal issue by explaining how CPS, other government entities, and the community at large respond to child abuse and neglect. It reviews the emergence of the government role in child protection and summarizes current debates over the parameters of that role. Then the article examines three key issues regarding the shared responsibility for child protection, and offers recommendations with regard to each:


  1. How should the role of CPS be framed, its efforts focused, and its decision making improved?
  2. What prevention and treatment resources should broader service systems offer to families, to complement the protections CPS can provide to children?
  3. What will it take to make lasting improvements in the child protection system?

There are no easy or inexpensive answers to any of these questions. Instead, the path toward more effective protection for children will require public debate over appropriate societal goals related to child maltreatment. It will demand a new emphasis within CPS on prioritizing, decision making, and creating partnerships with service providers. It will require an ongoing commitment to capacity building and practical research. And it will take significant government resources to create and sustain a safety net for poor families and a service system for troubled families.