By Francis Koster, Ed.D.

As a Futurist, I write about emerging threats, and the need for successful interventions to address them. In that spirit, today I bring good news about something bad.

The United States has begun to turn the tide on how we deal with child abuse.   I am not saying the problem is solved - but progress, compared to where we started decades ago, is being made.  The lessons learned along this path to progress inform many other challenges our society faces. 

The term "Child Abuse" covers much ground, from lack of food and hygiene, to emotional  abuse,  to  battery,  to sexual abuse.  Using that big definition,  it appears that out of the roughly 75 million Americans under the age of 17[i], more than one million American children are victims of child abuse each year[ii].    More than half of the abused are reported to suffer from "neglect" - they were not physically attacked, but they were not fed, or supported in ways that their little bodies and minds require.   Of the remaining group, about 300,000 suffer physical abuse, about 150,000 suffer emotional abuse, and around 135, 000 suffer sexual abuse.[iii]   Hard to believe these numbers represent progress, but they do. 

In 1873, a church volunteer doing a home visit found a 9 year old girl chained to a bed, malnourished and beaten.  The volunteers' first efforts to rescue the child failed, because the law and custom of the day made such behavior within a household a private matter.   Local officials ignored the reports, and when investigation was finally begun the community leaders failed to follow up.  In desperation, the church worker turned to the American Society For The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for help, because animals were protected under a better set of laws than children were.  ASPCA sued the officials, arguing that humans were animals to.   The resulting publicity successfully rescued the child.[iv][v]

Starting from this foundation of outrage against physical and emotional abuse, science helped build the case.    With more widespread use of x-ray occurred in the 1950's, doctors began to see examples of years of abuse documented in untreated and badly healed broken and fractured bones of children who before had no witnesses to their situation.  In 1962, the Journal of The American Medical Association summed up this horror in an article which called for diagnosis and treatment of child abuse as a medical condition.[vi] 

As knowledge of both emotional and physical abuse grew, discussion  of sexual abuse of children, heretofore a taboo subject,  became more acceptable.

There was resistance  - some labeled these efforts as intrusion into the arena of the family, and/or an unwarranted expansion of government.  Some called the emerging evidence poor science.  State and local laws became a very uneven patchwork quilt, resulting in people getting away with bad behavior in one locale that they could not do in another - much like today's legal climate in the area of public health and the environment.

It was not until 1974 that the first really comprehensive federal law was passed to protect children from abuse.  Called The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act  (or CAPTA), the law required the states to create systems to capture and investigate reports of child abuse. 

[vii]  As a result, a large number of children were removed from bad circumstances.

There were problems - in the beginning,  there was no standardized formal training programs about how to investigate a suspected case of child abuse.

[viii]   Imagine this situation in other professions - ambulance crews who show up never having been trained in CPR, or police officers never trained in best practice hostage negotiations - yet this is exactly the situation that existed for many years in many parts of the country.   If training did exist, it was not standardized, and not based in science.  Few undergraduate or graduate courses in academic areas likely to lead to careers in this field had any education in how to conduct an accurate and fair investigation.   In 1985 the National Child Protection Training Center was started at Winona State University  in Minnesota, which developed undergraduate and graduate curricula in investigation and prevention of child abuse.   Since its establishment the Center has trained over 40,000 child protection professionals . 

This history teaches us that concerned citizens can shine attention on problems and bring about changes in customs and laws for the betterment of all.   We also see that as science and technology gives citizens clearer insight into a problem, the ability of the concerned citizen to bring about change increases.  This is what is occurring now in the area of pollution detection, and public health monitoring.

We have come a long way from the days when animals had more protection than children.  While the journey is not done, much can be learned by studying how change was brought about. 

We can make our society better if we work at it.

 



[vii] A brief history of Child Welfare System published by Pew Trusts  2004

[viii] Victor I. Vieth, Unto the Third Generation: A Call to End Child Abuse in the United States Within 120 Years, JOURNAL OF AGGRESSION, MALTREATMENT & TRAUMA