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                                                          CHILD ABUSE



Purposeful beating of children historically legitimate for discipline, educational, religious obedience

The Roman legal code, English common law and early American common law gave guardians limitless power over children. Children had no legal right to protection.

American common law legitimated right of legal guardians to impose any punishment deemed necessary for child's upbringing

Discovery is a recent phenomenon

Relatively few cases of legal prosecution of abuse prior to 1960s

All 50 states passed laws against caretaker's abuse of children between 1962 and 1966

Nineteenth Century Reform Movements

House of Refuge Movement

Sought to stem industrial social pathologies by removing youth endangered by corrupt urban environments to controlled institutional settings

Preventive detention to inhibit delinquency and create a controlled environment for “proper growing up”

Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children

In 1875 the SPCA intervened in the case of a young girl (Mary Ellen) who was severely
beaten by her foster parents, prompting the formation of the SPCC and legislation requiring courts and law enforcement agencies to aid child abuse agencies

Sought increased support for childcare institutions

Targeted cruel employers or adoptive parents rather than natural parents

Juvenile Court

The first juvenile court was established in Illinois in 1899

Sought removal of youthful offenders from adult institutions to House of Refuge institutions

Sought alteration of punitive House of Refuge institutions

Sought to prevent lower class delinquency and rescue less fortunate

Children and not guardians were the targets of prevention policies

Courts did not label parents who abused children deviant

Context for Discovery of Abuse

Decline of Preventive Penology

Failure of institutionalization to "reorder" individuals

Diminished belief in link between poverty and immorality

Public acceptance of former parental "immoralities"

Advance of child protection

In 1909 the White House Conference on Children produced the “Mother Aid” movement and the American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality

Child protection began with a narrow focus on physical cruelty but gradually broadened to include physical neglect, abandonment, and child welfare

The federal government began to regulate child labor and the removal of children from adult institutions

Federal emphasis on keeping children in the family

Creation of HEW Children's Bureau in 1930

Low incentive to interfere with parental rights

Between 1920 and 1960s child maltreatment declined as a concern when protective services were incorporated into child welfare services

Discovery of abuse by pediatric radiologists

Pediatric radiologists began researching long bone fractures of unspecified origin in children in the late 1940s

1946 – Caffey studied the pooling of blood under the skin resulting from long bone fractures. A trauma explanation resulted due to the decline of rickets and bone syphilis

1953 – Silverman concluded that bone changes in children were due to accumulated injuries but warned against creating parental guilt

1955 – Woodley and Evans reviewed case reports of inadequately explained physical injuries and found little evidence of disease or bone fragility. They attributed the incidents to “unstable households” (neurotic or psychotic parents).

1962 – Silverman, Steele, Droegmueller, and Silver created the term “battered child syndrome.” They studied 302 children in 88 hospitals and identified as battered children those under 3 with unusual injuries and inadequate explanations.

The causes of injuries in children began with diagnoses of parental carelessness, moved to parental irresponsibility, and finally settled on misconduct and deliberate injury.

Reasons for non-discovery by physicians and social welfare officials

Legal and social welfare agents outside the scene of abusive behavior or inside psychoanalytic perspective

Doctors unaware of possibilities of abuse as a diagnosis

Doctors unwilling to believe parents capable of abuse and

Physician-patient confidentiality

Doctors' unwilling to become involved in criminal justice system

Radiologists discover "battered child syndrome"

Diagnostic categories a function of research rather than a precondition of medical mission

Distanced from immediate injury

Did not regard entire family as client

Opportunity for status advancement from marginal specialty


By 1963 13 states mandated child abuse reporting by medical professionals

By 1966 all 50 states had child abuse legislation enacted


Child Abuse and the Bureaucratization of Social Work

Trends in Social Work

During the 1950s and 1960s these was a shift among social workers from control and punishment to treatment and welfare

Problem children were seen as the product of poorly functioning families

Parents were perceived as lacking skills and emotional resources to raise children

Battered children were the product of emotionally immature, psychologically inadequate parents

There was a concern about the breakdown of the family and parental permissiveness

Social Work and the Problem of Child Abuse

Public inquiries revealed that social workers did not know about or failed to recognize “warning signs” of child abuse (There are warning signs)

Treatment techniques were judged to have failed to change dangerous into safe parents (Failure to treat)

Welfare departments failed to process and monitor information systematically (Failure to process)

Constructing the Abuse Problem

There was a policy shift from returning families to competent functioning to protecting children from violence

There was a policy shift from treatment and rehabilitation to surveillance and investigation. Family caseworkers became investigators

Discretion for caseworkers was reduced

Constructing the Solution to the Abuse Problem

Identifying risk factors

Gathering evidence that would meet legal standards

More rigorous and systematic investigation


Stranger Intervention into Child Punishment



There has been a continuing trend toward privatization of the family leading to

Lower parent accountability

Decreased community access

Low social control

Encounters among strangers in public places are characterized by

Civil inattention

An audience role

Civility toward diversity

Circumstances of Intervention


No request for assistance

No public (occupational role)

Engaged in everyday activity

Immediate access to “wrongdoer”


Verbal or non-verbal

Contesting Intervention

Undue intervener interest

Protection of parental differences

Applying an abuser label


1. Having been abused as a child

2. Stress

3. Stress and Job loss

Work related tension

Death in family

Serious illness, injury

4. Alcoholism

5. Authoritarianism





Cases involve accusations against babysitters

Problems in Creating Material Evidence

No conspicuous injury

Babysitter denial

Children too young to provide testimony

No witnesses

Decision Rules

Child's version considered true

Child's testimony rejected only when child denied abuse

Babysitters only regarded as credible when they confess

Terminology refers to perpetrators

Determining intentionality

    Physical damage intentional if act intentional