In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Literary Resources
  • Research on Developmental Pathways
  • Family Diversity and Family Strengths
  • Economic Circumstances
  • Child and Family Services
  • Cross-National Perspectives

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Social Work Children
James K. Whittaker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0105


Since the inception of social work as a profession, children have constituted a key focus of interest for it. In fields of practice such as child welfare, child mental health, school social work, juvenile justice, and maternal and child health, social workers have played significant roles in the design, delivery, and evaluation of core services. Often and particularly for those children requiring state intervention, social workers are at the critical juncture of legal, social, and health service systems striving to maintain the delicate balance between providing family support and ensuring child safety. Underpinning these efforts is a complex and growing body of developmental research and theory informing the field’s understanding of the role of proximate and distal environments in influencing the life course of children toward beneficial or adverse developmental outcomes. Estimates from the Child Trends Data Bank reflecting the latest US Census data report that there has been an increase in the child population of more than 50 percent since 1950, but the proportion of children in the overall population has been declining since the 1960s and is currently estimated at 25 percent. Tracking such data is critical for future educational, health, and social services planning. This entry will sample and draw on the diverse array of knowledge sources that the profession of social work utilizes in crafting policy and service plans for children and families: historical and literary sources, child population data, child development research, and child and family policy studies and services research.

General Overviews

Grace Abbott’s seminal early work, Abbott 1938, set the context for thinking about the relationship of government, voluntary and statutory agencies, and children and families in the United States. Social welfare historian Robert Bremner’s 1974 five-volume work (Bremner 1974) provides a wealth of documentation and illustration of primary source materials on childhood conditions and services dating from colonial times through the early 1970s. Gordon 1999 and Hacsi 1998, contemporary scholars, offer critical historical analyses of two areas of contested space in child welfare: ethnic and racial dimensions in adoptions (Gordon) and the care of dependent children in nonfamilial (group care) settings (Hacsi). Finally, Thurston 1930 offers a view of the meaning of “child dependency” and societal responses to it on the eve of a period of major economic and social upheaval: the Great Depression.

  • Abbott, G. 1938. The Child and the state. 2 vols. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Sweeping two-volume classic work by one of social work’s pioneer scholars: child welfare, child labor, delinquency, and related topics. Excellent on the legal and societal frameworks that informed child welfare policy and services.

  • Bremner, R. 1970–1974. Children and youth in America. 5 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Magisterial collection of primary documents covering all aspects of children’s lives and service reforms, court decisions, and legislation from colonial times through the mid-1970s. Covers key policy initiatives such as the first and succeeding White House Conferences on Children as well as numerous examples of services reform efforts.

  • Gordon, L. 1999. The great Arizona orphan abduction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Explores a long-overlooked struggle over racial/ethnic identity and adoptive parents in the American southwest early in the 20th century. Gordon’s analyses of this early controversy anticipates many of the dimensions of current concern about “adoption” as a child welfare strategy and about the role of religion, race, and ethnicity within the adoption process.

  • Hacsi, T. 1998. Second home: Orphan asylums and poor families in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Offers an intimate view of what was America’s first response to child dependency for well over 100 years: the orphan asylum. Excellent on day-to-day practices in contemporary children’s homes.

  • Thurston, H. W. 1974. The dependent child. Children and Youth. New York: Arno.

    First published in 1930, a social work classic: explores child dependency in its myriad forms and societal responses to it throughout American history with references back to the English Poor Law. Foreshadows current debates in child welfare such as future directions for substitute care.

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