Child Protective History
From Romans to Now
English Common Law  ~The American Colonies  ~ The Constitution and Child Protection Laws  ~ Federal Statutory Policy 

The following is a summary of the changes in ideas on who should be responsible for protecting and making decisions on protecting our children. One expression, that is important is  parens patriae.  (Latin for “father of the people”). "from the Declaration of Independence and what our Founding Fathers envisioned for our country.  The statement that we quoted says something to me.  I am hoping that it says the same thing to you. Basically it is saying that: If we the people, find any injustices within our created democratic system, that we are to bring that injustice to the forefront.   We are responsible to let the public know about it and do all that we can to correct the problem.  Actually, it say’s we have the right and the duty to abolish such government." (Taken from:Chap. 2-Our Rights Are Being Trampled)

 GranPa Chuck

No ancient civilization considered child protection to be a governmental function. In ancient Rome, for instance, fathers were vested with an almost unlimited natural right to determine the welfare of their children. The welfare of minors was a family matter, not a governmental interest or obligation. Most other governments of the ancient world provided no limits to a father's right to inflict corporal punishment, including infanticide.

English Common Law

In addition to the case-by-case determinations by the chancery court regarding children's property and guardianships, Parliament, in 1601, promulgated the Poor Law Act, which, among other provisions, provided the government jurisdiction to separate children from pauper parents and to place poor children in apprenticeships until the age of majority (21 for males and 16 for females). In 1660 Parliament passed the Tenures Abolition Act, which presaged the end of feudalism, including guardianships in chivalry that had formed the basis for the earlier Court of Wards and Court of Chancery over the guardianship of both children's and the Crown's inheritance and property interests. ("Guardianships in chivalry" provided that when a tenant on a lord's land died leaving an heir under the age of majority, the lord could control the minor heir's inheritance until the child became an adult.) The Tenures Abolition Act was revolutionary because it vested in the father the right to appoint a guardian for his child heir, which was previously forbidden under the feudal inheritance laws.

From 1660 until 1873 the Court of Chancery administered equity jurisdiction in conflicts between private parties over testamentary guardianships. It was during these equity determinations that the Court of Chancery expanded the substantive scope of child protection to include, in addition to inheritance and property, concerns over a ward's rights to marry, to a particular type of education or school, to the choice of religious training, and to child custody arrangements. In 1839 Parliament dramatically expanded the court's jurisdiction to determine the best interest of children through the Custody of Infants Act, which provided court jurisdiction to over- ride a father's parental rights, including rights to custody and visitation. Most historians would agree that by the nineteenth century governmental concern in the child's best interest were perfected directly through the doctrine of parens patriae, rather than indirectly through legal contests over property and guardianships.

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The American Colonies

The child protection policies of the early American colonists closely mirrored those of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Britain. The colonists emphasized two aspects of English child protection theory: "the common law rules of family government; and the traditions and child-care practices of the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601" (Thomas, p. 299). Although colonial remedies of placing pauper children into involuntary apprenticeships or into poorhouses initially followed English legal customs, soon colonial theorists expanded court jurisdiction over juveniles to include contexts beyond poverty. For instance, in eighteenth-century Virginia, courts separated children not just from poor parents, but also from parents who were not providing "'good breeding,' neglecting their formal education, not teaching a trade, or were idle, dissolute, unchristian or 'uncapable"' (Rendleman, p. 210). Calvinist notions of poverty as idleness and sin permitted court expansion into the normative definitions of the "best interest" of children.

Until the mid-1800s, child protection laws did not differentiate among different classes of children; so that dependent children, status offenders, and juvenile delinquents were either housed together in poorhouses with adults or involuntarily apprenticed. However, by 1830, "an embryonic reform movement had begun," which removed dependent children from the teeming poorhouses and placed them in large orphan asylums. (Thomas, pp. 302 - 303). Due to the refuge movement (1824 - 1857), private corporations such as the New York House of Refuge (founded in 1824) received public funds and cared for both neglected and delinquent children in large institutions that separated juveniles from adult criminals and paupers. However, by the mid-1850s an anti-institution movement had developed, with the goal of placing poor city children in country foster placements rather than in large city institutions. Even though numerous state statutes were promulgated in the nineteenth century to care for abused and neglected children, government machinery was inadequate to implement sufficient protection.

In 1875 in New York, the first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) was founded to help enforce child protection laws. However, since the SPCC was composed primarily of "wealthy, white men, almost all of them Protestant," who hired middle-class men as family investigators, the families that were targeted were largely poor immigrant families, who were judged by middle-class mores and vague standards such as "without proper parental guardianship" (Schiff, p. 413). The numerous competing reform movements and children's aid societies of the mid-to late 1800s focused on the child as a member of a family group, not as an autonomous individual, and most emphasized removing children from their own families and placing them into a different home environment. By 1879 the New York Children's Aid Society had sent 48,000 children out of New York to live with other families. After its first fourteen years, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children "investigated nearly 70,000 complaints of ill-treatment of 209,000 children. Prosecutions were pursued in 24,500 of these cases, resulting in almost 24,000 convictions and the removal of 36,300 children" (Schiff, pp. 413 - 414).

By the beginning of the twentieth century the tide had turned away from family separation and toward family preservation. At the 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, it was declared that "home life is the highest and finest product of civilization. It is the great molding force of mind and of character" (Tanenhaus, p. 550). The twentieth century ushered in a dramatic shift away from private child protective services in favor of governmental control by public agencies authorized under both federal and state child protection statutory schemes. In 1899 Illinois promulgated the first juvenile court, whose stated purpose was to provide for the care and custody of children in a manner that was an alternative equivalent to that of their parents. By 1920 all but three states had a juvenile court system.

But the goal of family reunification was rarely realized by the early juvenile courts, because few services were made available to assist poor uneducated parents in curing the conditions that led to state intervention. Instead, children remained in out-of-home placements for considerable periods of time. For instance, in Chicago, the city with the nation's first juvenile court, the rate of family reunification in 1921 was about the same as in 1912 (70%), but in 1921 more children were staying in institutions for longer periods than in 1912.

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The Constitution and Child Protection Laws 

Between 1875 and 1900 numerous challenges to the vague legal definitions of child dependency and the informal legal proceedings leading to the separation of parents and children were denied. Early court decisions did not speak in terms of parents' constitutional rights to rear their children, did not closely circumscribe the state's parens patriae power to protect children, rejected arguments based upon criminal law analogies, and failed to articulate procedural due process protections for families caught in the child protection legal maelstrom.

Although state and county juvenile courts continued to evolve and to provide different levels of due process in child protection proceedings, the modern child dependency court development was shaped by several decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, which formalized the court process. In Meyers v. Nebraska (1923) the Court held that parents have a fundamental constitutional liberty interest in rearing their children. Based upon that liberty interest, the Court held in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services (1981) that, under certain circumstances, parents are entitled to court-appointed attorneys when they face involuntary termination of their parental rights in child protection proceedings. And in Santosky v. Kramer (1982) the Court held that the state has the burden of demonstrating, by clear and convincing evidence, that termination of parental rights is necessary to protect children. Local juvenile courts no longer had unbridled discretion to informally and permanently separate parents and children. However, the U.S. Constitution became the sounding board only in cases involving permanent severance of parental rights. States are still free to provide fewer due-process procedural rights in temporary child protection cases.

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Federal Statutory Policy

In the 1980s and 1990s the autonomy of state child protection schemes was further compromised and homogenized by a series of federal statutes. In 1980, Congress passed the first comprehensive federal child protective services act, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (Pub. L. 96-272), which focused on state economic incentives to substantially decrease the length and number of foster care placements. This act also required specific family reunification services, reflecting the goals of the 1909 White House Conference. However, in 1997, in order to cure many of the defects in the 1980 act, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which shifted the focus from family reunification to expeditious permanency for children in adoptive placements. All state child protection systems adopted the federal guidelines as a requirement for receiving federal subsidies. Thus, because of constitutional and federal statutory requirements, the genesis of America's child protection system has led to great uniformity among state programs.

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