Journal Issue: Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1998
The protection of children is a value shared by all cultures and communities around the globe. In almost all societies, responsibility for raising children well and preparing them for adulthood goes beyond the parents and is shared, to some degree, by the community at large. The community's investment in the well-being of its children is reflected in cultural mores and social norms, and in legal frameworks that permit intervention in individual families when children are abused or neglected.
In the United States, independence, privacy, and parental rights are highly prized. The legal system supports the right of families to rear their children according to their own values, and requires evidence of danger or harm before the state may invade the sanctity of the home to protect children.1,2 Given the value society places on privacy, even neighbors and friends are often reluctant to informally intervene into family relationships. Controversy surrounds the work of child protection because it juxtaposes the need for social intervention to protect children and the inherent rights of parents. As a result, efforts to improve upon the nation's system of child protection often aim to find a balance between these competing values.
The formal system through which this society responds to child abuse and neglect is now largely a governmental one, although in the past, private child advocacy and child welfare agencies were the leaders in actions on behalf of vulnerable children. Today, primary responsibility for child protection is vested in public child protective services (CPS) agencies, which receive, investigate, and respond to reports of child abuse and neglect. These agencies are usually linked to child welfare departments with broader responsibilities, which include foster care and adoption. Both are typically housed within state or county departments of social services. CPS functions are funded through state or local authorities and are governed by state statutes, although they have been shaped by federal leadership, legislation, and funding. At the local level, the work of CPS is done in close coordination with the courts, law enforcement agencies, and local social service providers.
This article first reviews the history of the nation's response to child maltreatment, tracing the shift in responsibility from private charities to public agencies. It also documents how efforts to provide substitute homes for children whose parents abuse or neglect them have overshadowed efforts to strengthen vulnerable families so children can remain at home. Second, the current role of CPS is outlined and discussed in relation to the other organizations (such as the courts) that contribute to child protection. Last, two key challenges now confronting the nation's child protection system are briefly discussed: the difficulty of determining which cases should be served by CPS, which is a relatively intrusive and authoritative intervention into family life; and the importance of involving other community members and organizations in the effort to protect children.