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U.S. History of Child Abuse


Child Abuse refers to intentional or unintentional physical, mental, or sexual harm done to a child.

Child abuse is much more likely to take place in homes in which other forms of domestic violence occur as well. Despite a close statistical link between domestic violence and child abuse, the American legal system tends to treat the two categories separately, often adjudicating cases from the same household in separate courts. Some think this practice has led to an inadequate understanding of the overall causes and dynamics of child abuse, and interfered with its amelioration.

The treatment of child abuse in law has its origins in Anglo-American common law. Common law tradition held that the male was head of the household and possessed the authority to act as both disciplinarian and protector of those dependent on him. This would include his wife and children as well as extended kin, servants, apprentices, and slaves. While common law obligated the male to feed, clothe, and shelter his dependents, it also allowed him considerable discretion in controlling their behavior.

In the American colonies, the law did define extreme acts of violence or cruelty as crimes, but local community standards were the most important yardstick by which domestic violence was dealt with. Puritan parents in New England, for example, felt a strong sense of duty to discipline their children, whom they believed to be born naturally depraved, in order to save them from eternal damnation. Although Puritan society tolerated a high degree of physicality in parental discipline, the community did draw a line at which it regarded parental behavior as abusive. Those who crossed the line would be brought before the courts.

In the nineteenth century the forces of industrialization and urbanization loosened the community ties that had traditionally served as important regulators of child abuse and neglect. The instability of market capitalism and the dangers posed by accidents and disease in American cities meant that many poor and working-class families raised their children under extremely difficult circumstances. At the same time, larger numbers of child victims now concentrated in cities rendered the problems of child abuse and neglect more visible to the public eye. Many of these children ended up in public almshouses, where living and working conditions were deplorable.

An expanding middle class viewed children less as productive members of the household and more as the objects of their parents' love and affection. While child abuse did occur in middle-class households, reformers working in private charitable organizations began efforts toward ameliorating the problem as they observed it in poor and working-class families. Although the majority of cases brought to their attention constituted child neglect rather than physical abuse, reformers remained remarkably unsympathetic to the social and economic conditions under which these parents labored. Disadvantaged parents commonly lost parental rights when found guilty of neglecting their children. The parents of many institutionalized children labeled as "orphans" were actually alive but unable to provide adequate care for them.

In 1853 the Reverend Charles Loring Brace founded the New York Children's Aid Society. Convinced that the unhealthy moral environment of the city irreparably damaged children and led them to engage in vice and crime, Brace established evening schools, lodging houses, occupational training, and supervised country outings for poor urban children. In 1854 the Children's Aid Society began sending children it deemed to be suffering from neglect and abuse to western states to be placed with farm families. Over the next twenty-five years, more than 50,000 children were sent to the West. Unfortunately, the society did not follow up on the children's care and many encountered additional neglect and abuse in their new households.

Reformers of the Progressive Era (circa 1880-1920) worked to rationalize the provision of social welfare services and sought an increased role for the state in addressing the abuse and neglect of dependent individuals under the doctrine of parens patriae (the state as parent). In 1912 the White House sponsored the first Conference on Dependent Children, and later that year the U.S. Children's Bureau was established as the first federal child welfare agency. Child welfare advocates in the Progressive Era viewed the employment of children in dangerous or unsupervised occupations, such as coal mining and hawking newspapers, as a particular kind of mistreatment and worked for state laws to prohibit it.

The increasing social recognition of adolescence as a distinct stage of human development became an important dimension of efforts to address child abuse. Largely influenced by the work of psychologist G. Stanley Hall, reformers extended the chronological boundaries of childhood into the mid-teens and sought laws mandating that children stay in school and out of the workforce. Reformers also worked for the establishment of a juvenile justice system that would allow judges to consider the special psychological needs of adolescents and keep them separated from adult criminals. In 1899, Cook County, Illinois, established the nation's first court expressly dealing with minors. Juvenile courts began to play a central role in adjudicating cases of child abuse and neglect. Over the following decades the number of children removed from their homes and placed into foster care burgeoned. The Great Depression magnified these problems, and in 1934 the U.S. Children's Bureau modified its mission to concentrate more fully on aiding dependents of abusive or inadequate parents.

By the mid-twentieth century, the medical profession began to take a more prominent role in policing child abuse. In 1961, the American Academy of Pediatrics held a conference on "battered child syndrome," and a sub-sequent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association published guidelines for identifying physical and emotional signs of abuse in patients. States passed new laws requiring health care practitioners to report suspected cases of child abuse to the appropriate authorities. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 gave federal funds to state-level programs and the Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990 provided federal assistance in the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases.

Despite the erection of a more elaborate govern-mental infrastructure for addressing the problem of child abuse, the courts remained reluctant to allow the state to intrude too far into the private relations between parents and children. In 1989, the Supreme Court heard the landmark case DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services. The case originated in an incident in which a custodial father had beaten his four-year old son so badly the child's brain became severely damaged. Emergency surgery revealed several previous injuries to the child's brain. Wisconsin law defined the father's actions as a crime and he was sentenced to two years in prison. But the boy's non-custodial mother sued the Winnebago County Department of Social Services, arguing that caseworkers had been negligent in failing to intervene to help the child despite repeated reports by hospital staff of suspected abuse. Her claim rested in the Fourteenth Amendment, which holds that no state (or agents of the state) shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Court, however, ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment protects citizens' rights from violations arising from actions taken by the state-not from actions it may fail to take. The boy had not been in the custody of the state, such as in a state juvenile detention center or foster home, when the violence occurred, and therefore, the Court said, no special relationship existed between the child and the state. In other words, children did not enjoy an affirmative right to be protected by the state from violence committed by their custodial parents in the privacy of the home.

Many advocates for victims of domestic violence criticized the ruling, arguing that it privileged the rights of abusive parents over the best interests of children, and worked toward reforming the law. The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 established new guidelines for the states that included mandatory termination of a parent's rights to all of his or her children when the parent had murdered, committed a felony assault on, or conspired, aided, or abetted the abuse of any of his or her children. Laws in all fifty states require parents to protect their children from being murdered by another member of the household; failure to do so may result in criminal liability and loss of rights to other of their children. AFSA extended these liabilities to include a parent's failure to protect a child from felony assault. While the act's intent was to promote the best interests of children, critics have noted that this has not necessarily been the result. Prosecutors, for example, have been able to convict mothers who failed to protect their children from violence in the home even though they were also victims of the abuser. Thus, children have been taken from the custody of a parent who did not commit abuse and who could conceivably provide appropriate care after the actual perpetrator was removed from the home.


Costin, Lela B., Howard Jacob Krager, and David Stoesz. The Politics of Child Abuse in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Gordon, Linda. Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston, 1880-1960. New York: Viking, 1988.

Rothman, David J. The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. 2d ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.


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