Child Protection History — ABA
John E.B. Myers
VI. Child Sexual Abuse Takes Center Stage
Prior to the late 1970s, many sexually abused children were protected. Yet, recognition of sexual abuse lagged behind recognition of physical abuse. In 1969, Vincent De Francis wrote that social work literature seems devoid of reference to or content on this subject. In 1975, David Walters wrote, “Virtually no literature exists on the sexual abuse of children.” Also in 1975, Suzanne Sgroi wrote, “Although the pioneering efforts of many distinguished professionals and dedicated lay people over the past decade have made child abuse a national issue, the problem of sexual molestation of children remains a taboo topic in many areas”. In 1977, Henry Kempe gave a lecture in which he described sexual abuse of children and adolescents as another hidden pediatric problem and a neglected area.
In the early 1970s, sexual abuse was still largely invisible, but that was about to change. Two related factors launched sexual abuse onto the national stage. First, the child protection system–including reporting laws–expanded significantly in the 1970s. Second, new research shed light on the prevalence and harmful effects of sexual abuse.
By the end of the 1970s, the United States enjoyed for the first time a nationwide system of government-sponsored child protection. The influential CAPTA included sexual abuse in its definition of maltreatment. By 1976, all states had reporting laws requiring professionals to report sexual abuse. The expanded child protection system, particularly the reporting laws, wrenched sexual abuse from obscurity.
Prior to the 1970s, there was a paucity of research on the prevalence and effects of sexual abuse. Vincent De Francis was one of the first to break new ground. In 1969, De Francis published the results of his study of 250 sexual abuse cases from Brooklyn. De Francis wrote, “The problem of sexual abuse of children is of unknown national dimensions, but the findings strongly point to the probability of an enormous national incidence many times larger than the reported incidence of physical abuse of children”. Two thirds of the children in De Francis’s study were emotionally damaged by the abuse. De Francis concluded, Child victims of adult sex offenders are a community’s least protected children. Frequent victims of parental neglect, they are, almost always, also neglected by the community which has consistently failed to recognize the existence of this as a substantial problem.
A decade after De Francis’s groundbreaking research, David Finkelhor published Sexually Victimized Children. Much had changed since 1969, when De Francis complained that society ignored sexual abuse. In 1979, Finkelhor wrote:
Child protection workers from all over the country say they are inundated with cases of sexual abuse …. Public outrage, which has for several years focused on stories of bruised and tortured children, is shifting to a concern with sexual exploitation. Between 1977 and 1978 almost every national magazine had run a story highlighting the horrors of children’s sexual abuse.
Finkelhor surveyed 796 college students and found that “19.2 percent of the women and 8.6 percent of the men had been sexually victimized as children. Most of the sexual abuse was committed by someone the child knew, and most was not reported.
As Finkelhor was finishing his research, Diana Russell was working toward similar findings. Russell studied 930 women and found that 16% were sexually abused during childhood by a family member. Thirty-one percent of the women reported sexual abuse by a nonrelative. The pathfinding research of Vincent De Francis, David Finkelhor, Diana Russell, and others exploded any idea that sexual abuse was rare or benign.
VII. Summary of Post-1962 Developments
Remarkable progress has been made in the period after 1962. For the first time, child protective services were available across the country-in small towns, rural areas, and cities. The growth of child protection was a boon to thousands of children. Ironically, however, the expansion of the child protection system, particularly the rapid deployment of laws requiring professionals to report suspected abuse and neglect, carried the seeds of crisis. The reporting laws unleashed a flood of cases that overwhelmed the child protection system, and by the 1980s, the system was struggling to keep its head above water.
Forty years ago, child protection pioneer Vincent De Francis lamented, “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.” What would De Francis say today? I believe he would say that although today’s child protection system has many problems, the contemporary system is a vast improvement over the incomplete patchwork that existed in the 1960s. Today, child protective services are available across America, billions of dollars are devoted to child welfare, and thousands of professionals do their best to help struggling parents and vulnerable children.
The child protection system protects children every hour of the day. Unfortunately, the public seldom hears about child protection’s successes. Indeed, the only time child protection makes the front page or the evening news is when something goes terribly wrong: social workers fail to remove an endangered child who ends up dead, or social workers remove children when they should not. Both scenarios-over- and under-intervention-are inevitable in the difficult work of child protection.
Yet, the fact that the public hears only about child protection’s failings undermines confidence in the system. The truth is that the system saves lives and futures. As you read this sentence, a social worker somewhere is making a decision that will protect a child. As we look back across history, it is clear that the effort to protect children is not a story of failure, but a story of progress and hope. The child protection system is far from perfect, and much remains to be done, but, at the same time, much has been accomplished.