History of Child Maltreatment
Original Link: http://www.naccchildlaw.org/?page=childmaltreatment

The following is an introductory summary of "Child Maltreatment". It is extremently important not only to know "all sides" of an issue, but to know the history of development. Here we are today, but in reality in the US, and as early as 1839 the philosopy of "parens patriae" was suggested.

Below is an Index of the Topics covered:

Introduction ~ Incidence of Child Maltreament ~ Origins of Child Maltreatment ~ Protection ~ End Notes
Physical ~ Sexual ~ Neglect ~ Emotional/Psychological

Child maltreatment is the general term used to describe all forms of child abuse and neglect. There is no one commonly accepted definition of "child abuse and neglect." The federal government defines child abuse and neglect in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act as "the physical and mental injury, sexual abuse, negligent treatment, or maltreatment of a child under the age of 18 by a person who is responsible for the child’s welfare under circumstances which indicate that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or threatened."2 Each state provides its own definition of child abuse and neglect.3 Child maltreatment encompasses physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional abuse, which can be defined as follows:

Non-accidental physical injury as a result of caretaker acts. Physical abuse frequently includes shaking, slapping, punching, beating, kicking, biting and burning.4
Failure of caretakers to provide for a child’s fundamental needs. Although neglect can include children’s necessary emotional needs, neglect typically concerns adequate food, housing, clothing, medical care and education.6
The habitual verbal harassment of a child by disparagement, criticism, threat and ridicule. Emotional or psychological abuse includes behavior that threatens or intimidates a child. It includes threats, name calling, belittling and shaming.7

Incidence of Child Maltreatment

Although it is difficult to accumulate precise statistics for child maltreatment nationally, a methodology has been developed for accumulating incidence of child maltreatment from the states.8 Once thought to be a problem involving only a few thousand children a year, child maltreatment has since been identified as nothing less than a national emergency.9 The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau reported the following incidence of child maltreatment for 2003:10

Origins of Child Maltreatment

There are approximately 1 million substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect in the United States each year and millions more reported cases.12  Child maltreatment is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it unique to certain nations and cultures.13  It appears children have always been abused and neglected.14 A number of studies of the history of child maltreatment have begun with the now familiar quote by psycho-historian Lloyd De Mause:

The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awake. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized and abused.15

History seems to bear out De Mause. Evidence of infanticide (the practice of intentional killing of a child condoned by parents and society), for example, exists in much of ancient history. Infanticide had been an accepted procedure for disposing of undesirable children.16 Robert Ten Bensel notes evidence of infanticide in 7000 BC with the finding of remains of infants interred in the walls at the city of Jericho. Siculus, a Greek historian of the first century, reported the putting to death of weak, infirm and those who lacked courage. A second century Greek physician instructed midwives to examine children and dispose of the unfit. The Roman Law of Twelve Tables prohibited the raising of defective children. Infanticide, which existed as late as the 19th century in parts of Europe, was justified in two ways. First, because children were considered parental "property," parents, as property owners, were entitled to destroy that property. Second, infancy (historically -- birth to age seven) was by definition a period of time before the right to live vested.17 Illegitimacy is another historical cause of child maltreatment. Many societies outlawed illegitimacy, and illegitimate children were ostracized, abandoned and killed.18


It is difficult to say when the modern child protection movement began. The famous case of Mary Ellen in 1874 is important but misunderstood. Although this first Juvenile Court was founded in 1899, early juvenile courts were not focused on protecting maltreated children as much as they were concerned with keeping the streets free of poor and vagrant children. The events which most likely gave rise to our current child protection systems were the battered child research and writings of Dr. Henry Kempe in the early 1960s and the passage of the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974. The following is a list of historical events that give rise to our current system.


1. Most of the following information is adapted from Ventrell, Marvin, "Evolution of the Dependency Component of the Juvenile Court" Children's Legal Rights Journal, Volume 19, Number 4, Winter 1999-2000.
2. Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) as amended by Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003, 42 U.S.C. § 5106(g) (2003).
3. See, 2003 Child Abuse and Neglect Statute Series Statutes-at-a-Glance: Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect: National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, National Adoption Clearinghouse (2003). Available at: http://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/mandaall.pdf State Statute Series [hereinafter NCCAN Statute Series 2003].
4. R. K. Oates, The Spectrum Of Child Abuse (1996). See also Sagatun & Edwards, supra note 10.
5. Id.
6. Id.
7. Id.
8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families. Child Maltreatment 2003 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2005) [hereinafter cited as Child Maltreatment 2003]. Available at:
9. U.S. Advisory Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect.
10. Child Maltreatment 2003
11. It is commonly acknowledged that many incidence of child maltreatment are never reported. Additionally, states sometimes fail to report nationally information reported to the state. Child Maltreatment 2003.
12. Child Maltreatment 2003.
13. Helfer, supra note 3.
14. Id.
15. De Mause, The History Of Childhood (1974).
16. Langer, History Of Childhood Q.(1973).
17. Helfer, supra note 3.
18. Id.
19. Ex Parte Crouse, 4 Whart. 9 (Pa. 1839).
20. 321 U.S. 158 (1944).
21. Caffey, Multiple Fractures in the Long Bones of Infants Suffering from Chronic Subdural Hematoma, 56 Am. J. Roentgenology 163 (1946).
22. Kempe, Silverman, Steele, Droegmueller & Silver, The Battered Child Syndrome, 181 JAMA 17 (1962).
23. 13 Cal. App. 3d 504 (1971); see also Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62 (1991) and State v. Henson, 33 N.Y.2d 63 (1973).
24. In re Jamie TT, 191 A.D. 132; 599 N.Y.S. 2d 892 (3d Dep't. 1993).
25.  Rollin, Legislative Update, ABA Child Law Practice, Vol. 16, No. 11, 166-171 (1998).

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