A Historical View of Child Protective Services

While we often must navigate our way through murky and dangerous situations with Child Protective Services (CPS), it’s interesting to take a look at the how these county agencies got started historically.

We're providing a historical view of child welfare services agencies, based on the information from an article called, "A Short History of Child Protection in America” (John E.B. Myers, Family Law Quarterly, Vol. 42, Number 3, Fall 2008).

Roots Stemming Back to the 1870s

In 1874, a religious missionary – Etta Wheeler – learned of 9-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson's struggles. The young girl was habitually beaten and neglected by her guardians while living in New York's Hell's Kitchen.

After the police refused to investigate, Wheeler asked child charities for help. Sadly, they weren't a governing body that could do anything to mitigate this issue.

She then spoke with the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Henry Bergh, who reached out to his lawyer, Elbridge Gerry. Through legal means, Gerry was able to rescue Marry Ellen from her dire circumstances.

However, Berg and Gerry were moved enough by this situation to launch a nongovernmental charitable society devoted to child protection. They called it the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC). It is the first organization strictly dedicated to child protection in US history.

Elbridge Gerry was named president of the NYSPCC and upheld those duties until the early 20th century.

Entering the 1920s

By 1922, child protection had grown exponentially.

There were 300 nongovernmental child protection societies throughout the US during this time. Unfortunately, these services weren't accessible to most cities and nearly 100% of rural areas.

By 1919, there were only three states that didn't have a juvenile court, but they were quick to follow suit. These courts now had the authority to intervene in child abuse and neglect cases.

Entering the Great Depression

As the 1920s ended, states carried much of the load when it came to child welfare policy and funding. In contrast, the federal government didn't make much of an impact.

It was only during the 1930s and the onset of the great depression that the federal government started staking its claim in social welfare. When President Roosevelt, in 1935, passed the Social Security Act, it included aid for dependent children.

The biggest difference-maker from this ruling was one obscure provision that allowed the Children's Bureau further jurisdiction. There was a distinct focus on upholding the protection for dependent and neglected children in rural areas.

Unfortunately, the depression saw the demise of non-government protective agencies. Combined with the available government support being haphazard at best (e.g., in the early 1960’s, California had no county system of child protective services), child protection provided by the government was mostly inaccessible.

But the groundwork was laid for the modern form of CPS.

Everything Changed in the 60s

During the 1960s, physicians began playing a vital role in increasing the awareness of child abuse once medical schools started providing the necessary training. By 1967, all states legislated the need for medical professionals to report suspected child abuse cases. California’s first law mandating physicals to report suspected child abuse was promulgated in 1963.

A 1946 article by a pediatric radiologist, John Caffey, was a significant influence on this shift. The movement was further bolstered by an article called "The Battered Child Syndrome" by pediatrician Henry Kempe. The media wasn't far behind the growing medical attention on child abuse, and these studies were soon covered on mainstream platforms.

From there, Congress focused more on child protection. It also ruled that in 1962, states must pledge to make child welfare available, statewide, by July 1, 1975. Protective services agencies grew with the expansion of other child welfare institutions.

This heightened focus meant a surge in reported cases of abuse, which skyrocketed to 60,000 by 1974. (By 1990, there were over 2,000,000 reports of abuse.)

The Importance of 1970s

Congress established the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 1974. This meant more federal funds would be allocated to improve state responses to all forms of abuse. These efforts centered around investigating and reporting.

CAPTA administration was primarily put in the lap of the Nation Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.

To this day, CAPTA plays a vital role in our system.

Furthermore, by the end of the 1970s, the US had its first government-sponsored child protection for the whole nation. By 1976, all states had reporting laws requiring professionals to report sexual abuse.

Much of the framework created the 70s exists in the 21st century. It laid the critical foundation for what CPS is to this day.