Child Protection History — ABA
John E.B. Myers
V. The Federal Government Assumes a Leadership Role
Prior to 1974, the federal government played a useful but minor role in child protection. The Children’s Bureau was founded in 1912, but the Bureau paid little attention to maltreatment until the 1960s. The Social Security Act of 1935, as amended in 1962, provided money to expand child welfare services. Yet, as late as 1973, U.S. Senator Walter Mondale wrote, “Nowhere in the Federal Government could we find one official assigned full time to the prevention, identification and treatment of child abuse and neglect.”
Due in substantial measure to Mondale’s efforts, Congress assumed a leadership role with passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (CAPTA). CAPTA authorized federal funds to improve the state response to physical abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse. CAPTA focused particular attention on improved investigation and reporting. In addition, CAPTA provided funds for training, for regional multidisciplinary centers focused on child abuse and neglect, and for demonstration projects. Responsibility for administering CAPTA was placed in a new agency, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. The Center funded important research on maltreatment. CAPTA played a major role in shaping the nationwide system of governmental child protective services in place today. In addition, CAPTA marked the final passing of privately funded, nongovernmental child protection societies. Congress periodically renewed CAPTA, and this important legislation remains in force today.
Prior to 1978, as many as twenty-five to thirty-five percent of Native American children were removed from their parents for alleged neglect or abuse. The majority of these children were placed in non-Indian foster homes, adoptive homes, and institutions. In 1978, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to reduce the number of Native American children removed from their homes. Congress recognized, “There is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children,” and “that an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families are broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies.” To reduce inappropriate removal of Indian children from their homes, ICWA provides that only tribal courts can decide abuse and neglect cases involving children whose permanent residence is a reservation. For Indian children who do not live on a reservation, state juvenile courts can make decisions about removal, but the child’s tribe must be notified, and the tribe has the right to intervene in the case.
Before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, interracial adoption was uncommon. Several states, including Louisiana and Texas, had outright bans on interracial adoption. Social workers generally believed it was important to place children with adoptive parents of the same ethnic background. During the 1960s, however, courts struck down laws against interracial adoption, and increasing numbers of white parents adopted children of color.
During the 1970s, critics of interracial adoption mounted a spirited
campaign against the practice, led by the National Association of Black Social Workers. In 1972, the association issued a position paper stating:
Black children should be placed only with Black families in foster care or for adoption. Black children belong, physically, psychologically and culturally in Black families in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future. Human beings are products of their environment and develop their sense of values, attitudes and self concept within their family structures. Black children in white homes are cut off from their healthy development of themselves as Black people.
Elizabeth Bartholet wrote that the association’s position “found a
receptive audience. The establishment forces readily conceded that the black and Native American communities had a right to hold onto ‘their own.’ The new orthodoxy was quickly established, making the 1960s period of transracial placements seem a brief anomaly in the larger picture.” Cynthia Hawkins-Leon and Carla Bradley added, “In an attempt to adhere to the tenets of the [association’s] position paper, adoption agencies began to enact and enforce same-race placement policies. As a result, the number of transracial adoptions dropped drastically nationwide.”
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, children of color, particularly
African-American children, are overrepresented in foster care, and
African-American foster children tend to wait longer for adoption than white children. The antagonism of the 1970s toward interracial adoption exacerbated the problem by dissuading whites from adopting African-American children. During the 1980s and 1990s, pressure mounted to lower racial barriers to adoption, and in 1994, Congress passed the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA). The 1994 MEPA prohibited child welfare agencies from delaying or denying adoptive placements on the basis of race. Yet, MEPA allowed race as a factor in placement decisions. Critics argued that allowing race as a factor perpetuated the status quo against interracial adoption. In 1996, Congress amended MEPA to narrow
the circumstances in which race may be considered. Under the 1996 amendment, a child’s race must normally be considered irrelevant in determining the best placement for the child. Only in narrow circumstances where the needs of a specific child make race important can social workers consider race as a factor.
Child abuse reporting laws and enhanced awareness of child abuse produced an increase in intervention. By the late 1970s, the rising number of children in long-term foster care set off alarm bells in Congress, resulting in passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (AACWA). AACWA required states to make “reasonable efforts” to avoid removing children from maltreating parents. When removal was necessary, reasonable efforts were required to reunite families. Every child in foster care had to have a “permanency plan” to return the child home or move toward termination of parental rights. For children who could not go home, Congress provided financial incentives for adoption.
Finally, AACWA provided financial support for adoptive parents who adopted children with special needs.
The effort to preserve families-called family preservation-was a key
component of AACWA, and the dominant paradigm of child protection in the 1980s. In the 1990s, however, critics argued that over-reliance on family preservation sometimes led to tragedy. One of the most forceful critics of family preservation was Richard Gelles, who challenged the effectiveness of family preservation in his 1996 book, The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children’s Lives. Gelles wrote:
The essential first step in creating a safe world for children is to abandon the fantasy that child welfare agencies can balance the goals of protecting children and preserving families, adopting instead a child-centered policy of family services. This is not a new policy, but rather a return to the policy of the early 1960s that established child safety as the overriding goal of the child protection system. It is time to abandon the myth that “the best foster family is not as good as a marginal biological family.” The ability to make a baby does not ensure that a couple have, or ever will have, the ability to be adequate parents. The policy of family reunification and family preservation fails because it assumes that all biological parents can become fit and acceptable parents if only appropriate and sufficient support is provided.
Although AACWA, with its emphasis on keeping families together,
helped many children and parents, the number of children living in foster care did not decline. Moreover, Richard Gelles and others charged that reasonable efforts and family preservation caused social workers and judges to leave children in dangerous homes. Congress responded in 1997 with the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). Although ASFA did not abandon family preservation, it made child safety the top priority. When children are placed in foster care, ASFA establishes strict time lines for returning them to their parents or terminating parental rights to free the children for adoption. In cases of sexual abuse and chronic physical abuse,
ASFA authorizes states to dispense with efforts to reunify the family, and to move directly to termination of parental rights.