Child Welfare refers to a set of government services that are designed to protect children, and also to encourage stability within the family. These types of services include, but are not limited to: foster care, adoption services, and child protection services. The “child protection services” were aimed at investigating child abuse and neglect, and if necessary, removing the child from the home.
Policies and legislation regarding child welfare trace back all the way to 1825, when states were given the right to remove neglected children from the abusive parents and the home. The children were then placed into an orphanage or in another home, which later became known as “foster care”. In 1835, the Humane Society founded the National Federation of Child Rescue.
These agencies had the authority to investigate child maltreatment. It the late 19th century, private agencies, decided to follow the Humane Societies’ agenda and were able to investigate maltreatment, present cases to the court, and advocate for proper child welfare legislation.
Moreover, in 1874 the first case of child abuse that was criminally prosecuted in court was in regards to Mary Ellen, a young girl that was moved from place to place and beaten by her stepmother. Etta Wheeler, a Methodist social worker, sought assistance from Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA, to use the defense of “cruelty to animals”. Mary Ellen was removed from the home and placed into a safe environment.
Government officials continued to make changes and create policies to benefit workers fighting for neglected children. President Roosevelt, in 1909, created a “publicly funded volunteer organization to establish and standards of childcare”, and in 1930, the Social Security Act provided funding for interventions needed for the “neglected and dependent children in danger of becoming dependent”. In 1958, the Social Security Act was amended and mandated that states would fund child protection efforts.
However, the Child Abuse Prevention and Tax Act (CAPTA) was passed in 1974, and US Congress implemented a number of laws that made a major impact on the state child protection and welfare systems, by providing federal funding wide-ranging federal and state child maltreatment research and services. This helped lead up to Congress passing the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, which was the first federal child protective service act which primarily focused on the state economic incentives to help decrease the length and number of foster care placements.
Interesting enough, also paving the way for social workers today was Helen Boardman. She earned her Master’s in Social Work in Chicago, and worked as a Social Worker at a Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles until 1972. It was there that Boardman developed a passion for advocacy for children and the prevention of child abuse. She was the first to recognize the true depth of child abuse and make it known to the medical and legal systems.
Boardman pressured Henry Kempe to write, Battered Child Syndrome Awareness of a Child, as a social issue, and pressed the National Children’s Bureau for mandatory laws in reporting child abuse. Helen Boardman was the founding member of the Social Workers Association of Los Angeles (SWALA), which played an enormous role in the planning and development of the National Association of Social Work (NASW) (Univ. of SC, 2005-2006)
Therefore, the mid-70s through the 1980’s seemed to be where child welfare gained a lot of momentum in the policies and reform. However, policies will continue to be amended and added in efforts to ensure that children remain safe and secure in their home environment. Following the footsteps of Etta Wheeler and Helen Boardman, social workers must continue to advocate for the voices that cannot fight for themselves.
American Humane Association. (n.d.) Retrieved from:
Bryjak, G.J. (2011, April). Parents, Children, Faith Healing, & the Law. Retrieved from
Michel, S. (2012, April). Child Care: The American History. The Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from american-history/
North Carolina Division of Social Services. About Child Abuse and Neglect.
University of Southern California. (2005-2006). California Social Work Hall of Distinction.
Retrieved from http://socialworkhallofdistinction.org/honoree/item.php?id=75
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2012). Major Federal Legislation Concerned
With Child Protection, Child Welfare, and Adoption. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Retrieved from
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