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An Introduction to Child Abuse

by Duncan Lindsey

The Discovery of Child Abuse

In 1962, C. Henry Kempe conducted a survey of eighty-eight hospitals in which he identified 302 children who had been "battered." The survey, which for the first time defined the "battered child syndrome," graphically catalogued brutality to young children, many of whom suffered multiple injuries. While earlier discoveries of the child abuse phenomenon had smoldered in the public consciousness, Kempe’s report ignited a broad-based national effort to find ways to protect children. Specifically, it led to calls for child abuse reporting systems, to ensure that whenever a "battered child" was even suspected, the case would be reported and measures taken to protect the child.

By 1966 all fifty states had passed legislation regulating child abuse, all of which mandated reporting. By 1986, every state but one required reporting of neglect, and forty-one states made explicit reference to reporting of emotional or psychological abuse. Initially mandated reporting was limited to physicians, but this was eventually extended to include teachers, nurses, counselors, and the general public.

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The Avalanche of Child Abuse Reports

The state mandated reporting laws resulted in a meteoric rise in child abuse reports across the United States. In 1962, when Kempe and his colleagues published their report, there had been about 10,000 child abuse reports. By 1976, child abuse reports had risen to more than 669,000, and, by 1978 to 836,000. By 1992, almost three million reports of child abuse were filed nationwide, including 1,261 child-abuse-related fatalities. If current trends continue, it is projected that more than 4 million children will be reported for abuse annually by the year 2000.

To understand the impact of child abuse reports on child welfare agencies, it is important to understand the perceived mission of child welfare agencies prior to this time. Although concern with child abuse had played an important part in the activities of early 19th century children’s aid societies, during the first half of the twentieth century, it had steadily declined in emphasis, and been a minor concern from 1920 to the 1960’s. Child abuse was not central to the traditional approach of child welfare. With the emergence of mandated child abuse reporting, however, this side role was transformed into center stage concern by an avalanche of child abuse reports that abruptly redirected the goals of child welfare agencies.

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Decade of Transformation

The decades of the 70s and 80s saw child welfare agencies transformed from foster care agencies to protective service organizations whose resources were shifted from providing services to needy children and families to investigating and intervening in the increasing number of child abuse reports. For every report that was received, a child welfare agency worker was sent to investigate. The investigation might take a week, two weeks, a month, or longer, before sufficient data was collected that would permit a decision on what action should be taken. The process was difficult and expensive.

From the outset, the approach taken by agencies in investigating child abuse reports was accusatory. The caseworker's responsibility was to collect information that might eventually be used against the parent. Whereas previously the welfare worker was coming forward to help a troubled family, the worker now was now an inquisitor prying into and judging the family.

As public awareness campaigns continued to alert the public to the prevalence of child abuse, the number of reports escalated, which, in turn increased the need for more investigators and resources in child welfare agencies. At the same time the mood in society and government was turning increasingly skeptical toward social programs. Throughout the eighties, expenditures for social services were repeatedly cut. Paradoxically, while the public continued to demand greater efforts to curb child abuse, it was increasingly unwilling to fund those efforts. Thus, child welfare was having to confront a steadily growing problem with steadily diminishing resources. The result was a continual narrowing of focus regarding who should receive child welfare services.

The residual approach had always necessitated a "means test"—poverty, neglect, abandonment, being orphaned—before the child would be granted services. Child abuse now became the litmus test for conferring eligibility. Moreover, how severe was the abuse? Was the child being beaten, sexually molested, starved, tortured, injured to the brink of death? The millions of children living in destitute families, whose hopes and dreams were daily obliterated by poverty, and whom the agencies had previously attempted to aid, now, because they did not qualify, began dropping through the holes of the protective services safety net. To make matters worse, family supportive services that might have alleviated the demand for child welfare services were often cut to finance the new protective service investigations. In 1976, for example, 70 percent of those who came to the attention of the public child welfare system in California received in-home or out-of-home services beyond initial screening and referral. In 1992, less than 6 percent of those reported for child abuse received these services (Karski, 1995).

Today, in most states, child abuse is the central concern of the public child welfare system. With the exception of voluntary adoptions, the only way children enter the child welfare system is through an allegation of child abuse or neglect.

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The child welfare system is the epitome of the residual model. To receive services a child must be reported for neglect or abuse. The child welfare system remains in the background and only gets involved after the child is abused and neglected severely enough that agents of the state are required to halt the harm. Virtually nothing is done to prevent children from being harmed.

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