A Short History of Child Protection in America Pt #2

Child Protection History — ABA
John E.B. Myers

I want everyone to know that after I got into the first part of this, I felt like it was the perfect answer to all the stress and depression that has built-up inside of me, with each really bad case of what Our Children are forced to endure.

Today, I came face to face with the one person that I am lucky that Our meeting wasn’t a good many years ago.  You see I spent the day with my Best Friend and ones I love.  I was enjoying time away from my flaky internet, and when my Best Friend gave me that look, which no one would realize was a smile, I suddenly saw what no Child should ever see….


III. Child Protection from 1875 to 1962

Organized child protection emerged from the rescue in 1874 of nine-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson, who lived with her guardians in one of New York City’s worst tenements, Hell’s Kitchen.  Mary Ellen was routinely beaten and neglected.  A religious missionary to the poor named Etta Wheeler learned of the child’s plight and determined to rescue her.

Wheeler consulted the police, but they declined to investigate.  Next, Wheeler sought assistance from child helping charities, but they lacked authority to intervene in the family.  At that time, of course, there was no such thing as child protective services, and the juvenile court did not come into existence for a quarter century. Eventually, Wheeler sought advice from Henry Bergh, the influential founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Bergh asked his lawyer, Elbridge Gerry, to find a legal mechanism to rescue the child. Gerry employed a variant of the writ of habeas corpus to remove Mary Ellen from her guardians.

Following the rescue of Mary Ellen, animal protection advocate Henry Bergh and his attorney Elbridge Gerry lamented the fact that no government agency or nongovernmental organization was responsible for child protection.  Bergh and Gerry decided to create a nongovernmental charitable society devoted to child protection, and thus was born the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC), the world’s first entity devoted entirely to child protection.  Gerry became president of NYSPCC and served in that capacity into the twentieth century.

News of the NYSPCC spread and by 1922, some 300 nongovernmental child protection societies were scattered across America.  Although 300 is an impressive number, for much of the twentieth century, many cities and nearly all rural areas had little or no access to formal child-protective services.  For most abused and neglected children help came—if it came—from family and neighbors willing to get involved, from police, and from courts.

As nongovernmental child-protection societies popped up across the country, another important innovation appeared: the juvenile court.  The world’s first juvenile court was established at Chicago in 1899.  Juvenile courts spread quickly, and by 1919, all states but three had juvenile courts.  Before long, the remaining states fell in line.  Although the reformers who created the juvenile court were concerned primarily with delinquent children, juvenile courts from the outset had jurisdiction to intervene in cases of abuse and neglect.  Today, of course, the juvenile court is a central player in the child protection system.

As noted above, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, child protection agencies were nongovernmental.  The first few decades of the twentieth century witnessed increasing calls to shift child protection from nongovernmental Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCCs) to government agencies.  Douglas Falconer wrote in 1935:

“For many years responsibility for child protection was left almost entirely to private agencies …. Great sections of child population were untouched by them and in many other places the service rendered was perfunctory and of poor standard …. The belief has become increasingly accepted that if children are to be protected from neglect the service must be performed by public agencies.”

The call for government child protection coincided with the increasing role of state and federal governments in social services. Prior to the twentieth century, there were relatively few state-level departments of social services.  What government services there were the province of local government.  During the early twentieth century, states created or strengthened state departments of welfare, social services, health, and labor.

As for the federal government, prior to 1935, Washington, D.C., played an insignificant role in child welfare policy and funding. Creation of the federal Children’s Bureau in 1912 broke the ice, followed by the Sheppard-Towner Act, which provided federal money from 1921 to 1929 for health services for mothers and babies.  It was the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, that stimulated the sea change in the federal government’s role in social welfare. In 1935, as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal to save the nation from economic ruin, Congress passed the
Social Security Act. In addition to old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, and vocational services, the Social Security Act created Aid to Dependent Children, which provided millions of dollars to states to support poor families. Tucked away in the Social Security Act was an obscure provision that authorized the Children’s Bureau “to cooperate with state public-welfare agencies in establishing, extending, and strengthening, especially in predominantly rural areas, [child welfare services] for the protection and care of homeless, dependent, and neglected
children, and children in danger of becoming delinquent.”‘  This
provision was an important shot in the arm for the nascent social work specialty of child welfare, and a modest step toward what in the 1970s became a central role for the federal government in efforts to protect children from abuse and neglect.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hastened the demise of nongovernmental SPCCs.  The charitable contributions that were the lifeblood of SPCCs withered with the economy, and only the heartiest SPCCs weathered the economic drought.  In the 1930s and 1940s, many SPCCs merged with other organizations or closed.  In some communities, child protection was assumed by the juvenile court or the police, whereas in other communities,
organized protective work ceased.

In 1956, Vincent De Francis, director of the Children’s Division of the American Humane Association, conducted a national inventory of child protective services.’  De Francis found eighty-four nongovernmental SPCCs, down from the high of 300 early in the century.  Thirty-two states had no nongovernmental child-protective services. In these states, and in states with SPCCs, government agencies were slowly assuming responsibility.  At midcentury, many communities had no agency clearly in charge
of this vital service.

A decade after his 1956 survey, De Francis again took the pulse of
child protection.  By 1967, the number of nongovernmental SPCCs was down to ten. De Francis wrote, “Responsibility for provision of Child Protective Services under voluntary auspices, like the old soldier it is, is slowly fading away.  By 1967, nearly all states had laws placing responsibility for child protection in government hands.  Yet, De Francis complained, “No state and no community has developed a Child Protective Service program adequate in size to meet the service needs of all reported cases of child neglect, abuse and exploitation.”‘  A few years earlier, Elizabeth Glover and Joseph Reid wrote in a similar vein: “In hundreds of
counties in the United States, there is no protective service for children, other than police services, and in many of the nation’s largest cities, the only protective service is provided by voluntary agencies that are not sufficiently financed to give total community coverage. 

In 1965, California had no county system of child protective services.  In most states, protective services were not available statewide.  Most communities lacked twenty-four hour coverage. Thus, for the first six decades of the twentieth century, protective services in most communities were inadequate and in some places nonexistent.