How Far We Have Not Come…

Reading through the history of child protection in the early 1900’s evokes the same feelings as watching a lengthy drama unfold; a drama which concludes with an unsatisfactory ending. Some sources of optimism include inspiring women who advocated for maternal/child rights and the move toward assimilation over coercion in child protection (Costin, Karger, & Stoesz, 1997; Myers, 2006). One unsettling theme in the early 1900’s was the gender disparity and differential treatment of “delinquent” adolescent girls (Myers, 2006).

The “powerful women’s rights movement and its overarching influence on a number of social justice reform movements was a significant source of optimism in the early 1900’s (Costin et al., 1997; Gordon, 2002).” Women who were voiceless “property,” fought for the right to have property and a voice. It was women who advocated for their own rights and saw the rights of the child as intricately connected to their own. “Harm to one was harm to the other” (Costin et al., 1997). It is encouraging to see that women united across ethnicity, social class, and faith leanings. It is no less than inspiring to see how women gathered together to advocate for social reform.

One woman, among the many actively engaged in the women’s rights movement was Jane Addams, “a social reformer and educator” (Frederick, 2014). Addams, a pious intellectual, had travelled abroad on the urging of her step mother as an adult. She visited Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London, coming back to Illinois to open Hull House with Ellen Starr in 1889 (Myers, 2006). Hull House eventually adapted from its original model, to serve the emergent needs of the immigrant community in Chicago. Addams, thought to be the “mother of social work,” enjoyed the ability to “observe the ordinary,” giving much thought and action social reform for the betterment of families in need (Frederick, 2014).

In the early 1990’s, where there were women advocates – there was male opposition. The demand of women for equality brought the state from the boardroom – into the bedroom. The “rise of judicial patriarchy” was the perfect opposition to women’s and therefore children’s rights, which have always been intricately linked. The traditional place of authority held by the father, was rendered to the state, while gender-based social values remained the same. Judicial patriarchy set the teeth of families on edge, where courts and parents were in opposition rather than in alliance (Costin et al., 1997).

It is troubling as a reader to observe that “gender-based stereotypes” were embedded in child protection work from its inception; from an all-male staff at the New York Society (NYSPCC) until 1921, to the differing treatment of male versus female children. The NYSPCC delineated itself from other “charitable reform” organizations to one of patriarchal policing. It was a small step to social coercive control, one which the NYSPCC made stridently (Costin et al., 1997).

It may be prudent to clarify that social control in and of itself is neither good nor bad, it simply is. As a concept and practice it is a method of achieving and maintaining “orderliness and stability in human society” (Costin et al., 1997). In the early 1900’s social control was managed under two simultaneous styles: assimilative and coercive. The aforementioned settlement houses were assimilative in nature, seeking to partner with poor immigrant families for the communal welfare of the children as well as the “good” of society. When “clients” rejected the gentler assimilative reform, the NYSPCC approached families coercively, evaluating and enforcing the “norms” of the established middle class on immigrant families (Costin et al., 1997). Care and protection of maltreated children was never intended to become a method of malevolent social control.

Coercive social control did not only extend between the classes, it extended between the genders. It is a grievous reality that female children were apprehended from their families in the 1900’s due to adolescent antics. Girls who were deemed to be behave in an “unruly” fashion, outside of the social norms, were brought before the juvenile courts as a “status offender or sex delinquent” (Myers, 2006). Even though young males would also engage in illicit activity, when brought before the courts, they were charged as “delinquent” (Myers, 2006). Even more discouraging, a male delinquent would be placed on probation for his shenanigans, whereas a female would be placed in an institution until she could, “come to herself” (Myers, 2006).

The reader is left to review this time period soberly, from the vantage point of this present age.  To look back with the gift of hindsight to the 1900’s is to shift uncomfortably in comfortable chairs. The nightly news of our time plays like remastered saga from the early 1900’s. Social control, both assimilative and coercive styles are strong themes in North American news at present. Child maltreatment exposes are broadcasted on networks around the globe. The resurgence of women’s rights has gone viral to a feverish pitch, and yet millions of children are maltreated daily.

It is difficult not to let discouragement be the daily drink. Just over one hundred years later, it seems as if only small gains have been made. Yet somehow, the reader remains optimistic that like Jane Addams, one person can make a difference to many.


Works Cited

Costin, L. B., Karger, H. J., & Stoesz, D. (1997). The politics of child abuse in America. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from

Frederick, R. G. (2014). Jane Addams. Retrieved September 21, 2018, from

Gordon, L. (2002). Heroes of their own lives: the politics and history of family violence: Boston, 1880-1960. University of Illinois Press.

Myers, J. E. B. (2006). Child Protection in America. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

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