The Roots of the Child Protection System


Child protection as it exists today is a relatively new concept. As late as 1920 in Ohio, for instance, parents could place their children in indentured servitude without legal repercussion; an issue our child protection system today would definitely not turn a blind eye to. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that across the United States it became illegal through a patchwork of state legislation to abuse or neglect your child. And, in 1974, just seven years before the start of ProKids, the federal government passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act which supplied to the states federal funding and standards to prevent, identify and treat child abuse and neglect. This law, along with subsequent federal legislation created the foundation for which our current child protection system operates.

Most people are surprised that our current child protection system was formalized so recently. Often asking “what took so long?”

Intervening in a family’s life is no small matter. In fact, it is one of the biggest intrusions the government can make on the privacy of a family and individual. Prior to the beginning of the 20th century, public opinion maintained the government had little role or responsibility in protecting children from abuse and neglect. Historically, both in and outside of the United States, children have been considered property of their parents. It took public advocacy decades to shift public and judicial opinion that the government had compelling interest to infringe on the fundamental rights of parents in the case of a child’s safety. 

That shift took a series of highly publicized cases demonstrating the devastating effects of child abuse and neglect to spur states and the federal government to begin enacting laws and standards. In the 1960s, many states, including Ohio, passed laws to mandate reporting after a publication by a doctor, C. Henry Kempe, laid out diagnostic methods to recognize abuse and neglect in children. It became the collective belief of our society that a family’s right to privacy and autonomy never outweighed the safety and security of a child.

Even with that shift, though, it has always remained that a parent’s right to care for their child is paramount to the fundamental liberty of citizens when they are able to do so safely. 

“It is cardinal with us that the custody, care, and nurture of the child reside first in the parents.” – Supreme Court, Prince v Massachusetts (1944) 

Legislation and the court process around child protection has evolved over the last few decades locally and federally. But, the first goal of our modern child protection system has always been to restore and support parents’ rights by reunifying them with their children. 

Next up on the blog, we’ll be talking about those standards that need to be met to intervene in a family’s life and how the child protection system can support parents.