Magazine article Kennedy School Review

Child Abuse and Neglect: Public Systems and Private Lives

Magazine article Kennedy School Review

Child Abuse and Neglect: Public Systems and Private Lives

Article excerpt

When pediatricians identified the battered child syndrome in 1964, Americans expressed outrage. Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 1974 with bipartisan support. Throughout the country, states rushed to establish child protective services (CPS) agencies to serve abused children and their families. In many states, these new child protection agencies replaced traditional child welfare organizations that had been providing material support for the poor since the New Deal. Fast-forward thirty years, and today, communities look different, families look different, and there has been a raft of unintended consequences of child protection systems. Neighbors--even family members--now expect public agencies to be responsible for families with needs, further deteriorating social ties while overburdening public systems. It is time to consider an update.


In the decades after CAPTA passed, states' interpretations and amendments to the definition of child abuse and neglect have blurred the original intent, and state CPS agencies have become highly bureaucratized systems of services and sanctions. These CPS agencies became parallel bureaucracies to traditional welfare agencies; while welfare agencies continued to provide income maintenance to the poor, a family had to be adjudicated as "neglectful" by the CPS system to qualify for family supports including in-home services, parenting classes, and child care.

In all states, the most severe cases involving serious harm or sexual contact also meet a definition for criminal conduct. CPS staff report these cases to law enforcement authorities, but competing ideologies and priorities often cloud investigations. Child protection services are investigated under the doctrine of "the best interests of the child," and law enforcement agencies determine if there is enough evidence to bring a criminal charge. While no one wants to see an abusive parent escape consequences, I believe that paradoxes abound in this system. The most troubling is that abusers who may be the most amenable to treatment are also the easiest to prosecute; what a clinician calls "accepting responsibility," a prosecutor calls a confession.

Add to this the fact that, nationally, more than 60 percent of the cases referred to state CPS agencies allege neglect, which is generally a symptom of poverty. The federal welfare reform initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s have provided states with the discretion to provide support services to parents. Why? Because the states successfully argued that young, low-income parents could not move toward economic self-sufficiency if they were struggling with the demands of parenting. Public CPS agencies deliver formal sanctions along with services; families are often stigmatized by civil court proceedings and a listing in a central state registry that is often consulted as part of a background check for employment. Yet still, the more serious cases of physical and sexual abuse compete for the public resources of the CPS system with the neglect cases that could be served by the welfare system.

Like all social sciences, the science behind CPS interventions is inexact. When we accept science with less than 100 percent accuracy, there is room to be wrong. Risk-assessment schema, decision-making trees, and other tools of the trade fail occasionally under even the best of circumstances. When the failure results in the tragic death of a child, a huge political price is paid; the same failure rate would go unnoticed in other lines of public service. CPS systems have become a convenient scapegoat for the public, with CPS staff Vilified in local media after a tragedy. …

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