A Century of Child-Saving: Marisa Castuera Traces the Child Protection Movement to a Time When Child Abuse Was Seen as a Depravity of the Immigrant Poor. (Child Welfare)

By Castuera, Marisa | Colorlines Magazine, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

A Century of Child-Saving: Marisa Castuera Traces the Child Protection Movement to a Time When Child Abuse Was Seen as a Depravity of the Immigrant Poor. (Child Welfare)


Castuera, Marisa, Colorlines Magazine


For the past 130 years, the system of child welfare has been locked in a steady conflict with people of color and the poor. State-run child protection service (CPS) agencies wield tremendous power: They can intervene in a family's life on a number of levels, and they have the legal right to remove children from their home and place them in state's custody. This legal right is quite controversial because state caseworkers are far more likely to judge African American, Native American, immigrant, and low-income families as "unfit" to care for their children. While physical and sexual violence against children is something all communities confront, "neglect," not violence, is cited as the primary reason parents lose custody of their children. Families and researchers allege that the concept of neglect is based on an exclusive, white, middle-class standard for "appropriate" family life.

The origins of the child protection movement are a critical but unseen force behind today's conflict over CPS policies. The current nationwide system of governmental CPS agencies can trace its roots to 1880, when upper-class Protestants formed charitable organizations to rescue' maltreated children. Linda Gordon's book Heroes of Their Own Lives details the legacy of one of the earliest and most influential of these associations, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC). MSPCC workers were exclusively white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and 70 percent of their "cases" were immigrants. They portrayed child abuse as a condition of depravity that only the immigrant poor experienced--never the "respectable classes."

These upper-class "social reformers" intervened in families' lives based on their standards of what an American family should be. One faction of white, Protestant culture defined the ideal for a suitable home. This was a particularly elite faction, as well: For the first 70 consecutive years of its existence, every MSPCC president was a male Harvard graduate. Emphasizing cleanliness, fine dress, good food, order, and quiet, the MSPCC tried to "convert" families to this standard. The families that MSPCC targeted had their own cultural priorities and understanding about family life, but these were criticized as "inferior" in the agency's many case records. Even if families found the WASP standard desirable, they couldn't afford it. In MSPCC caseloads, 50 percent of the families lived in severe poverty.

The MSPCC and its upper-class allies led many of child welfare's transformations over the 20th century--Professionalization, government bureaucratization, and increased power are all legacies of this influential organization. And 130 years later, statistics are still grim in MSPCC's original site. In 2001, the neighborhood in Boston with the highest number of CPS caseloads showed that 95 percent of cases involved immigrant families and people of color. People of color, immigrants, and the poor continue to be disproportionately targeted for state intervention.

In Latino immigrant communities across the United States, CPS is viewed with a particularly intense suspicion. Children of Latino heritage are the fastest growing child population in the United States, and more Latino children live in poverty than in any other racial or ethnic group. When faced with white, middle-class cultural ideals for "appropriate" family life in America, Latinos can feel particularly threatened.

A Mexican immigrant in Southern California reports the widespread perception among mothers at her children's school: "If you say, 'I have problems,' it means that they are going to rake away your children." A Spanish-speaking Boston resident captured the sentiment behind her neighborhood's opinion of CPS, saying, "People don't ask for help for fear that their kids will be taken away, that they will be separated. There is a lot of confusion, a lot of fear."

Patricia, who immigrated to California from Toluca, Mexico, with her husband, learned firsthand about losing her children to the stare. …

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