Child Protection History — ABA
John E.B. Myers
IV. The Modern Era of Child Protection
A. 1962 to the Present
The first two sections of this article describe child protection before 1962. The next section discusses the post-1962 development of
the child protection system. By the late 1970s, government-sponsored child protective services spanned the nation, settling
into urban and rural areas alike.
B. Child Abuse Becomes a National Issue
The 1960s witnessed an explosion of interest in child abuse, and physicians played a key role in this awakening. Prior to the 1960s, medical schools provided little or no training on child abuse, and medical texts were largely silent on the issue. Even pediatricians were largely uninformed. The spark that eventually ignited medical interest in abuse was an article published in 1946 by pediatric radiologist John Caffey. Caffey described six young children with subdural hematoma and fractures of the legs or arms. Although Caffey did not state that any of the children were abused, he hinted at it. Following Caffey’s classic paper, a small but steady stream of physicians drew attention to the abusive origin of some childhood injuries. This trend culminated in the 1962 publication of the blockbuster article The Battered Child Syndrome by pediatrician Henry Kempe and his colleagues. Kempe played a leading role in bringing child abuse to national attention during the 1960s and 1970s.
As the medical profession became interested in child abuse, so did the media. Local media had always covered noteworthy cases, as when a child was beaten to death, but coverage by national media was uncommon prior to the 1960s. Following publication of The Battered Child Syndrome, national news outlets like Newsweek, Saturday Evening Post, Parents Magazine, Time, Good Housekeeping, and Life published emotional stories of abuse, often citing The Battered Child Syndrome and Henry Kempe. A Newsweek story from April 1962, for example, was
titled When They’re Angry and quoted Kempe:
One day last November, we had four battered children in our pediatrics ward. Two died in the hospital and one died at home four weeks later. For every child who enters the hospital this badly beaten, there must be hundreds treated by unsuspecting doctors. The battered child syndrome isn’t a reportable disease, but it damn well ought to be.
Prior to 1962, there was little professional research and writing about abuse. Elizabeth Elmer noted, “The amount of systematic research on the problem of abuse and neglect is conspicuously scant.’ Following publication of The Battered Child Syndrome, a trickle of writing became a torrent that continues to this day.
News stories and journal articles captured public and professional
attention. Behind the scenes, Congress placed new emphasis on child protection with amendments to the Social Security Act in 1962. Vincent De Francis remarked that the 1962 amendments “for the first time, identified Child Protective Services as part of all public child welfare. In addition to sharpening the focus on child protection, the 1962 amendments required states to pledge that by July 1, 1975, they would make child welfare services available statewide. This requirement fueled expansion of government child-welfare services, including protective services.
The year 1962 was momentous not only for publication of The Battered Child Syndrome and amendments to the Social Security Act. In the same year, the federal Children’s Bureau convened two meetings to determine how the Bureau could more effectively help states respond to child abuse. Attendees at the meetings, including Henry Kempe and Vincent De Francis, recommended state legislation requiring doctors to report suspicions of abuse to police or child welfare. These meetings were the genesis of child abuse reporting laws, the first four of which were enacted in 1963. By 1967, all states had reporting laws.
As reporting laws went into effect, the prevalence of child abuse and neglect came into focus. By 1974, some 60,000 cases were reported. In 1980, the number exceeded one million. By 1990, reports topped two million, and in 2000, reports hovered around three million. In the early twenty-first century, reports declined but remained high.
Turning from reporting laws to another critical component of child protection, foster care, during the nineteenth century, children who could not live safely at home ended up in orphanages or almshouses. Nineteenth century, reformers like Charles Loring Brace struggled to remove children from institutions and place them in foster homes. Debate over the merits of foster care versus orphanage care raged from the 1850s to the early decades of the twentieth century. Eventually, proponents of foster care
prevailed, and almshouses and orphanages disappeared.
In the early days, foster care was viewed as a major advance and as the best solution for many dependent children. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, some came to view foster care as a problem rather than as a solution. Critics lamented that nearly half a million children are in foster care at any point in time and that too many children get “stuck” in out-of-home care. What’s more, children of color, particularly African-
American children, are sadly overrepresented among foster children. Yet, despite problems, foster care remains a safe haven for many abused and neglected children.