Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

How the Liberati Sabotaged Child Welfare

Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

How the Liberati Sabotaged Child Welfare

Article excerpt


A century after its inception, child welfare in America is in disarray; the liberal promise of putting professional expertise to public benefit through the state has squandered on professional monopoly, inept practice, and lack of accountability. Social work has been central to this institutional failure by maintaining a professional monopoly on child welfare training, credentialing weak students, minimizing the import of research, and embracing postmodernism, an ersatz philosophy that derogated empiricism. Instead of establishing a sound foundation for identifying maltreated children and intervening on their behalf, the nation's child welfare infrastructure verges on collapse. Reform of child welfare has been frustrated by an entrenched liberati benefiting from the status quo. Recent collaborations between conservative and liberal organizations augur well for child welfare reform.


Prior to the advent of the welfare state, private voluntary agencies assumed responsibility for the welfare of children. Charles Loring Brace, founder of the New York Children's Aid Society, investigated poor immigrant children in the city's slums and transported thousands of children to farm families in the Midwest.9 Somewhat later, Jane Addams introduced a different strategy by organizing a kindergarten for poor immigrant children in Chicago.10 Disparate interventions notwithstanding, progressives relied on state-of-the-art research to describe the circumstances of the destitute poor and propose solutions. During the first decade of the twentieth century, Paul Kellogg surveyed living conditions in Pittsburgh, which prompted the Russell Sage Foundation to sponsor studies of other cities.11 Commensurately, the first schools of social work were established in New York, Boston, and Chicago.12 Meanwhile, reformers lobbied for the establishment of a federal agency to focus on children, leading President Theodore Roosevelt to convene a White House Conference on Children, momentum from which resulted in the creation of the U.S. Children's Bureau in 1912.13

Hoping to make a claim on professional status, early social reformers invited Abraham Flexner, who insisted that the scientific method be the basis for medical knowledge, to speak on the professionalization of social work at a conference in 1915; however, Flexner concluded that social work lacked practices based on science and more resembled journalism.14 Redoubling their efforts, social workers were determined to found their methods on science. In 1917, Mary Richmond, a doyenne of the Charity Organization Society movement, published Social Diagnosis, an exhaustive taxonomy of the difficulties and dysfunctions for the nation's immigrant poor.15 Subsequently, leaders of major social service agencies published a 1923 manifesto underscoring the importance of science for developing social work knowledge:

The future growth of social case work is in large measure dependent upon its developing a scientific character. Its scientific character will be the result in part of a scientific attitude in social case workers towards their own problems and in part of increasingly scientific adaptations from the subject matter of other sciences . . . .16

Within the network of voluntary agencies that emerged during the early decades of the 20th century, basing social work interventions on science was a consistent objective.

The Great Depression not only overwhelmed such voluntary efforts but also provided liberals the opportunity to establish the American welfare state. Subsequently, the 1935 Social Security Act addressed children through Title IV, which provided cash benefits to poor families through Aid to Dependent Children (ADC).17 ADC's structure as a state-administered program that benefited from federal funding was likely intended to placate southern members of Congress who feared control by the federal government. Under ADC, later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), once a parent was included in the grant, caseworkers visited families in order to assure that financial assistance was used prudently, as well as monitor the care of children. …

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