History of Child Protection

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The Development of Child Protection Services, 1066-1994: A Historical Perspective A presentation to Bedfordshire County Council Social Services Committee, February 1995

In the Beginning (1066-1871)

A diary of significant developments in child protection from 1066 to 1994 would, inevitably, need to be a very thick one, as it seems a week seldom goes by without a new report or enquiry from which we have to something learn. However of the 928 years covered, the first 800 or so would have no entries at all. It is perhaps rather startling to realise that until the latter part of the 19th century, children were not regarded as individuals in their own right but were in law for the most part regarded as the property of their parents. They were felt to have no right to, nor need of, any protection by the state and their social standing required that every effort be made to keep them with their parents, however abusive. Property rights in any case prevented any intervention by the state in the way children were treated by their parents.

First Steps in Protection (1872-1933)

When children finally began to be recognised as people in the latter half of the nineteenth century, we start to see relevant legislation reaching the statute books. However, whilst the law at this time recognised that children have a right not to be "wilfully ill-treated, neglected or abandoned", the focus of legislation was primarily criminal, rather than civil. In consequence, the law concentrated on punishing of the perpetrator rather than on promoting the well-being of the child. We had to wait another 40 years until the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act for legislation putting the child at the centre of the court's attention.

Modern Times (1933-1973)

The 1933 Children and Young Persons Act introduced consideration of "the welfare of the child" for the first time in English law. It was not, however, until 1952 that legislation was passed allowing children to be removed from their parent's care without the parent first having to be prosecuted for an offence against the child. Successive legislation building on this over the next 20 years consolidated the position of children as people to whom society owes a special responsibility and who have a right to be protected, by state intervention if necessary, from cruelty and neglect.

Whilst the right of children to protection was well recognised by the 1930s, our understanding of child abuse and what to do about it was still very limited. Little effort was put into study in this field because abuse was generally regarded as an extremely rare phenomenon committed by grossly abnormal people who could easily be identified as they were psychotic, drug-addicted, foreign or just plain evil. It took another 30 years for it to be recognised that physical abuse is actually fairly common and that those who commit it don't always stand out from the rest of us in any other obvious way. (Incidentally, it was not until as recently as the late 1970s that it was recognised that the same is true of sexual abuse.)

The growing realisation that child abuse was much more common and more complex than had been thought is reflected in the increasing protection provided to children by Children and Young Persons Acts in 1963 and 1969 which defined clearly grounds for removing children from their parents' care.

The Age of the Enquiry (1974-1987)

The report of the enquiry into the tragic death of Maria Colwell, published in 1974, ushered in a new age in the development of child protection services. The failure of the agencies concerned to prevent this young girl's manslaughter at the hands of her step-father attracted widespread media attention to child protection for the first time. In direct response to the findings of this enquiry and to the public outcry which accompanied it, a multi-agency child protection system was instituted that same year which, though much improved and amended, still exists...
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