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Children As Animals: The Evolution of the Child Welfare System

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

First Step: The SPCA

In the early part of the 1800s, Henry Bergh created The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) which pushed a legal framework that resulted in animal protection legislation in every state in the country. The framework was based on chattel law, the legal concept of "Malicious Mischief."

"...the charge brought when someone intentionally destroys or damages the personal property of another...[for instance] In 1887, the State of Indiana brought a case for malicious mischief against a man for 'cruelly torturing and needlessly mutilating a goose.'"

Gradually, animal protection law came out from property law and was broadened to include all animals.

Parents Know Best.

During the industrial revolution period of the late 1800s, violations of property law were prosecuted by the government, but there was no child protection law. Abandoned children or desperately impoverished children were sent to state almshouses that housed all order of medical, psychiatric and criminal adults as well children. Gradually charitable organizations stepped in to provide for children in almshouses. The charities provided some support for children but did nothing to protect them from abuse. The protection of animals rose from the necessity to protect property, but legal grounds to protect children could not be formulated.

  • Governments could not decide on a common definition of a child. Some parents could afford to keep their offspring in schools. Other families relied on their children to earn income by working hours on end to provide for them.

  • Family privacy was a highly prized value in the United States and courts always emphasized parental discretion in matters of discipline and punishment. No one had the right to interfere with parental judgement.

  • Child protection laws did get passed by various states but with prevailing attitudes about parental discretion, they were rarely enforced.

Legal Foundations for Child Protection.

The rescue of an abused child, one Mary Ellen Wilson (born in 1863) became the driving force for finding a legal framework for child protection legislation. In 1873, in New York City, a religious missionary named Etta Angell Wheeler, became aware of the horrible abuse and starvation of Mary Ellen Wilson by her guardians. Wilson contacted Henry Bergh, the president of the SPCA. Bergh contacted the SPCA's lawyers who worked out a legal logic for rescuing an abused child, based on the doctrine of habeas corpus.

According to the folklore about the case, Berg argued to the judge that the child is an animal who required protection like other animals. After this success, the SPCA began working on extending the law to provide protection to human children. In 1874, Bergh and a board of 12 sympathetic men founded the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC). The SPCC became the first real advocate for child protection, working to obtain comprehensive child welfare legislation [International Journal of Education and Social Science v.2, no. 6., June 2015].

Federal Law.

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was passed in 1974 (updated and reauthorized in 2010). CAPTA provides Federal funding to states to support them in administering Federally mandated programs, that are administered by the states. CAPTA provides for grants to public and non-profit agencies for demonstration projects. CAPTA also defines child abuse and neglect for purposes of law enforcement.

Families become involved with local child welfare agencies because of reports of suspected child abuse, neglect, or "child maltreatment," that is:

  • Neglect.

  • Physical Abuse.

  • Sexual Abuse.

  • Emotional Abuse.

  • Neglect.

When these are caused by:

  • Parents or primary care givers.

  • Extended family members.

  • Babysitters.

  • Failure of caregivers to prevent harm from happening to a child.

The Current System.

Today, child welfare systems are public or non-profit organizations that:

  • Receive and investigate reports of possible child abuse and neglect.

  • Provide services to families that need assistance in the protection and care for their children.

  • Arrange for children to live with relatives or in the foster care system when they are not safe at home.

  • Arrange for reunification, adoption, or other permanent family connections for children leaving foster care.

The child welfare system is a network of public (state or municipal), contracted private agencies and community-based organizations. They have three purposes that dynamically interact.

  1. Child safety.

  2. Protection of the union of the family.

  3. Finding a safe permanent living location for children.

These functions are served by careful assessments, consulting, and counselling services.

Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on translating evidence based research on trauma into skills that can be used immediately by individuals and organizations. You can learn more about her and her work at or

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