Child Protection in America: Past, Present, and Future

By John E. B. Myers | Go to book overview

Part II
THE ROAD AHEAD
Child Protection Today
and Tomorrow

The rescue of Mary Ellen Wilson in 1874 led by fits and starts to the child protection system in place today. In many ways, child protection in the twenty-first century resembles nineteenth-century efforts. Reports of abuse and neglect come to agencies. Investigations are conducted. A few cases end up in court, but most are handled by social workers outside the legal system. Today as then, the child protection system fails too often but works well for thousands of children.

Although there are similarities between today’s child protection system and earlier efforts, there are important differences. At one time, child protection was in the hands of private charitable organizations. Today, child protection is a function of government. Prior to 1970, many communities lacked a formal child protection system. Today, organized child protection stretches coast to coast. Modern understanding of child abuse and neglect is deeper and more nuanced than in Mary Ellen’s time, but many questions remain.

We have made significant strides, yet more than a century has passed since the creation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and maltreatment continues at discouraging levels. Every year, more than a thousand children die at the hands of adults who should cherish and protect them. Large numbers of girls and boys are sexually abused, physically assaulted, and neglected. The tide of maltreatment rolls relentlessly forward. Why is maltreatment so intractable? If there were simple answers to this question, they would have been discovered long ago. H. L. Mencken once observed, “There is an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”1 The problem of child maltreatment is agonizingly complex. Yet, despite its complexity, it is essential to forge ahead with efforts to understand the causes of maltreatment.

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