Making an Issue of Child Abuse: Political Agenda Setting for Social Problems

By Knudsen, Dean D. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1986 | Go to article overview

Making an Issue of Child Abuse: Political Agenda Setting for Social Problems


Knudsen, Dean D., Violence and Victims


Making an Issue of Child Abuse: Political Agenda Setting for Social Problems. Barbara J. Nelson. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984. 162 pp.

The emergence of child abuse as a public issue is unique in American history. From the introduction of the "battered child syndrome" in the early 1960s, less than a decade passed before federal and state legislatures had responded with laws and funding for research, social services, and programs for victims and perpetrators. Within a few years, child abuse had changed from a private concern to a public policy issue. Why did mistreatment of children so easily and quickly emerge as a social problem? How did the supporters of research and services succeed in placing and maintaining this issue on the legislative agenda? What factors shaped public understanding of abuse and neglect as well as their perceptions of perpetrators and victims?

These and similar questions form the focal points for this excellent book. Nelson has written an insightful account of the emergence of child abuse as a social issue, primarily concentrating on the history of federal efforts to address child care and family problems. Attention is directed to three major goals: (a) to recount the history of child abuse policymaking over the last three decades; (b) to discuss political agenda setting more generally; and (c) to consider "the public use of private deviance" (pp. 2-3). While her approach reflects the primary concerns of a policyoriented political scientist, there is much information in this book for sociologists, psychologists, clinicians, service providers, and policymakers to consider.

The recognition of child abuse as an issue could occur only in a sociocultural context of "protected childhood," which has developed over the past century. The incident usually noted as the beginning of protective activities is the 1874 case of Mary Ellen Wilson, whose stepmother's beatings brought an appeal to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after police said they could not intervene. Though earlier protective actions had occurred in Tennessee and Illinois, the attention of New York City newspapers introduced the case of children as a public concern. Within a few years, societies devoted to child protection existed in most states and large cities.

Nelson's account of the activities of these organizations details the process by which these private societies gradually were replaced by public institutions. Not only were the concerns of public services more consistent with the agenda of the Progressive era than those of the private organizations, but private agencies were deeply involved in removing children from poor urban families for foster or adoptive homes, where it was believed that they would receive the advantages of membership in Protestant middle class families. During this time period, other actions were also being directed toward improving children's care, as reflected by the juvenile court system and new laws concerning child labor, neglect, and poverty. By the end of the 19th century, all of the elements necessary for child protective services were in place (Giovannoni & Becerra, 1979), making the question of why child abuse did not emerge until the 1960s an intriguing problem.

The concern about child abuse, as Nelson notes, was a part of the general issue of equity and social responsibility that dominated public discourse in the 1950s and 1960s. However, it is doubtful that children would have been included without some important conditions that are overlooked in her account. Discovery of abuse by pediatricians, the dynamics of the medical profession, the status of radiologists within medicine, and the "battered child" label all promoted a recognition of child abuse among physicians and lay persons, and this interest was maintained by almost daily media reports about bruised, beaten children in America (Pfohl, 1977). Legislative action was quick, but laws were passed without resolving some basic problems: definitions of abuse and neglect, ways of identifying offenders and victims, and the right to intervene in families. …

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