A Brief History of Child Protection in America

Protecting Children and the need for doing so is a concept that (we hope) everyone who works with youth, as volunteers and as professionals, understands clearly.  Still, protecting children has many interconnected facets to it  that even we may not fully consider in the course and routine of doing our work. Of course we get the most basic and damaging aspects of sexual, physical and emotional abuse perpetrated upon vulnerable children by adults. Fortunately, all fifty states in the US have clearly defined laws and mechanisms for reporting such crimes. Other aspects, however, such as environmental safety, political and economic trends that impact social polices, also impacts the safety of children, too. Each of these seemingly far-flung concepts overlap one another in ways we may not readily consider, but for certain have a direct bearing on our work with children regardless of our individual settings. I get that the bulk of this section is dreadfully boring stuff, but by that taking  a few minutes to read  “A Brief History of Child Protection in America” will, I believe,  encourage us to step back, however briefly, to get a wider view of how these laws came into existence (in the U.S.) and how that informs and shapes the way we care about the safety of children within our care today.

In subsequent sections we will explore more closely several kinds of child safety that concern us and why each is so important in our work. In each section, I will also cover in detail the steps that we, as mandated reporters, should consider taking when we suspect that a child has been victimized by abuse/and or neglect that we encounter in our work. But first, some background.

The Journey of children as property without legal rights, to laws that aimed to protect them from abuse and neglect.

In 1875 the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty To Children became the world’s first organization devoted solely to the protection of children. It’s difficult to imagine that before 1875 no private or governmental agencies existed at all in the US. Court records here and there do show, however, that some judges did choose to prosecute some abusive parents and ordered that some children who were being abused removed from their homes, but the practice was rare and arbitrary. From 1875 until 1962, child welfare and protection agencies were all privately run and their coverage was scant, especially in rural areas. In 1874, a visiting nurse in New York City was trying desperately to have a child who was being severely abused by her parents removed from her home. When the police and courts would not intervene, the nurse turned to the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and it was through that organizations attorney,  that a legal mechanism was found to rescue the child, named Mary Ellen, and get her into a safer home.

In 1873 a young minister named Charles Loring Bruce drew attention to the huge number of children who were homeless and roaming the streets of New York City. The arrival of the industrial age coupled with large numbers of immigrants landing in NYC resulted in many children being left with inadequate care or outright abandonment. Reverend Bruce, with the help of other “anti-cruelty groups,” as they were known, formed the Children’s Aid Society. Over a span of 75 years, more than 150,000 orphaned and homeless children were sent by train to live in Christian homes mainly in the Midwest.  Child labor was valued by many farm families, and later accounts revealed that some, if not many, of these children received harsh or uneven care in their new surroundings.

In 1935 the federal government created the Social Security Act, which contained provisions to provide for assistance to poor mothers and needy children with the principal intention of providing services that would keep families intact. A part of the Social Security Act, which drew little attention at first, was a mechanism for states to establish their own child protection agencies, which in turn made these states eligible to receive federal funding. However, many states used these funds to place children into foster care, and not for direct services that supported families as a whole.

More recent legislation that directly affects our work today:

From 1962 onward, the federal government, through Congress, began to enact laws, statutes and funding streams to address child abuse and neglect in homes and orphanages across America and to establish penalties for perpetrators. Soon individual states began to enact their own laws and penalties in order to secure federal funding, etc. In 1974 Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, widely known as “CAPTA,” which called for professionals to identify, report, and establish standardized treatment methods to address child abuse specifically.

During this same period of time, until the late 1970’s, the practice of removing children from abusive homes and placing them into foster care was considered the method of choice. From the late 1970’s up to the present time, child advocates began to see that the practice of automatically removing children who were being abused in the home and placing them in foster homes also created another kind of problem–that many of these children with abuse histories were still being abused in foster care, and that these children also continued to perform poorly in their new school environments.

in 1980, the creation of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act had at its core the goal of preserving families, and to reunite children with their biological parents as soon as possible after intervention and a treatment plan had been established for the abusive parent. In time this new policy also revealed inherent flaws as well by leaving or returning vulnerable children back into the hands of an abuse parent or parents. Soon, a “child centered” treatment plan, similar to what had been taking shape in the early 1960’s, was the preferred norm for providing services to an abused child, while still attempting to help the child’s parents.

During the 1990’s official reports of abused children was continuing to rise rapidly. The numbers of children living in foster homes also continued to soar, which prompted Congress to create the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which had, as its goal to require clear timelines for either returning a child to his or her home once it was deemed safe to do so, or, to take away parental rights entirely and move the child into a faster track towards adoption.

During most of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, physical abuse and neglect of children populated nearly all of the reported cases, while the prevalence of sexual abuse of children went largely unreported. That soon changed when mandated reporting laws became required in all fifty states. Social workers and child advocates were swamped with more cases than the system was able to handle in the late 1980’s. Studies show though that by educating children, and the public at large about what sexual abuse is and how to recognize it, coupled with swift intervention and penalties for perpetrators, has helped to lessen the number of children being abused. Others say that it’s too difficult to assess whether or not our current practices and laws are doing enough and that sexual exploitation of children is still commonplace in homes across America.

The takeaway for us, as volunteers and professionals working with youth:

It has been instructive for me after doing some research and then creating A Brief  History of  Child Protection in America that so much of what we do in our work and the policies under which we function while at work are always in motion and ever-changing. I am sometimes frustrated by the reporting regulations I must abide by, especially when my gut-check also senses the  reality and likely outcome of whatever action I might take. For me, it’s always difficult to square this in my head and heart at the end of the day. While I may be  satisfied that I may have carried out my professional duty in the filing process, I’m frequently left feeling that the system, of which I am a part, has still largely failed the child in question.

If we’re honest, none of us who work with youth by day really want to read about this stuff at night, let alone brush up on its history. When I have free-time, I go and do whatever I don’t do at work, period. Yet still, it is encouraging to know that the whole topic of child protection and the preferred practices of the day are subject to change over time as we, as a society, at least attempt to “get it right” while writing intervention policies. On more than one occasion when I’ve been frustrated with how the system is working,  I’ve said to myself, “This is not how treatment (or intervention) used to be a few years ago.” Somehow we need to get more of the “trench workers,” those of us who are out there doing the work, more closely involved (or at least to be consulted) when legislative bodies and regulators craft new statutes and laws in an effort to more effectively help children in need. A tall order indeed, I know.

 Additional Reading:

History of Child Protection by the American Bar Association

Past, Present and Future Roles of Child Protection Services in America by the Future of Children.org


Kevin Lee

Leave a Reply