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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • The Influence of Henry Kempe on the Contemporary Child Protection System
  • The Politics of Child Protection
  • The Case for Reform
  • International Law and Policy
  • The Overall Prevalence of Child Maltreatment
  • Physical Abuse and Corporal Punishment
  • Neglect
  • Psychological Maltreatment
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Economic Exploitation
  • Peer Victimization
  • Strategies for Prevention
  • The Legal System as a Source of Protection for Children
  • Neighborhood Protection
  • Health Centers and Pediatric Programs to Protect Children
  • The Risks and Protections of Religious Institutions
  • Children’s Recovery from Maltreatment

Childhood Studies Child Protection
Gary Melton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0180


Today there is a broad consensus that, with alarming frequency, adults act in ways that endanger children, and that communities and governments must respond so that further harm is prevented. However, these beliefs and attitudes did not become widespread until the last quarter of the 20th century, and it was only in 1962 that physical harm inflicted on children by parents became well known through the publication of Denver pediatrician C. Henry Kempe’s article “The Battered Child Syndrome” (Kempe, et al. 1962, cited under The Influence of Henry Kempe on the Contemporary Child Protection System) in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Kempe and his colleagues described some emergency room cases of children beaten with a severity that many (maybe most) people had believed unimaginable. However, the problem was far more common and far more complex than Kempe and his colleagues—and the advocates and policymakers whom they influenced—ever imagined. The range of problems of concern went beyond “battering” to neglect and to particular clinical problems (e.g., drug-exposed newborns). Moreover, a purportedly treatment-oriented system often became punitive when the involvement of the legal system (especially the criminal justice system) mushroomed after sexual abuse was “discovered” in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, there was widespread agreement with the US Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect that the system was in a state of national emergency, with millions of children added to the system each year, and with both under- and over-intervention common. Despite the adoption of mandated reporting laws in each state by the end of the 1960s and the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974, there has long remained a gap between law and policy and between the rhetoric of child protection and the availability of funds for prevention or treatment. Ironically and tragically, the mismatch between the policy and the reality have become even more problematic as cases of alleged neglect, not physical or sexual abuse, are now predominant in the child protection systems in most wealthy countries, including the United States. The subject of child protection, and its twin topic, child harm, is a vast one, and this review is necessarily limited. Useful companion Oxford Bibliographies articles elaborate on topics which are not covered here, particularly “Risk and Resilience,” “Child Maltreatment” (which covers cultural and international perspectives), and “Children and Violence” (which examines the impact of children witnessing domestic violence).

General Overviews

Differing somewhat in emphasis and perspective, several books provide high-quality overviews of the field of child protection. Perhaps the broadest is Finkelhor 2008. Finkelhor has perhaps been the preeminent conceptualizer of child maltreatment and its types and causes, and he is an equally astute observer of trends in the field. His book accordingly chronicles the objective circumstances of victimization of children, regardless of whether it is legally or socially defined as abuse, neglect, or maltreatment. The volume includes attention to the circumstances under which children harm other children. Myers 2011, The APSAC Handbook, is an authoritative edited volume produced by an American professional organization that is concerned with child maltreatment in general, but that has had particular interest in sexual abuse and the forensic enterprise that has developed from attention to that problem. Thus, although The APSAC Handbook has broader coverage, its greatest emphasis is on forensic practice in the child protection field. By contrast, US Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect 1990 dramatically brought attention to the failures of the system designed to ensure children’s safety. The authors of Melton and Barry 1994, who served on the Advisory Board, provided the background necessary to conceive of a new child-centered, neighborhood-based system that would protect children more effectively. Another blue-ribbon panel, convened by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the (US) National Academies of Science, has recently examined the state of the field. The report of this panel is discussed in Petersen, et al. 2013, which provides a scholarly overview of the knowledge about child maltreatment and the child protection system. Reflecting the state of the field, the greatest detail is about the effects of child maltreatment. The IOM/NRC panel provides recommendations about structures and financial support needed to broaden and deepen the research base in the field.

  • Finkelhor, David. Childhood Victimization: Violence, Crime, and Abuse in the Lives of Young People. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195342857.001.0001

    Starts from the assumption that the critical problem is to stop victimization of children, not to halt only particular sources of harm (e.g., abuse by parents or unrelated “predators”). Finkelhor considers the significance of violence by peers and siblings. He argues, perhaps counterintuitively, that the victimization of children has been declining in frequency for most of the past generation.

  • Melton, Gary B., and Frank D. Barry, eds. Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect: Foundations for a New National Strategy. New York: Guilford, 1994.

    Melton and Barry present six papers commissioned by the US Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect that together provide an overview of the factors involved in promoting children’s safety. The papers address social support, material support, sociocultural factors, treatment, neighborhood development, and safety in out-of-home settings. The editors themselves summarize the neighborhood-based strategy of the US Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect. Several of the chapters were given a 20-year update in the March 2015 issue of Child Abuse & Neglect, a special issue on community factors in child maltreatment.

  • Myers, John E. B., ed. The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2011.

    The three editions of this authoritative handbook produced by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children have had little overlap in text. Edited by an eminent legal scholar, the current edition is especially “American” in content, with the centrality of the forensic enterprise, and the gathering and presentation of evidence, being obvious.

  • Petersen, Anne, Joshua Joseph, and Monica Feit, eds. New Directions in Child Abuse and Neglect Research. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2013.

    Provides an authoritative overview of knowledge about the nature of child maltreatment and its effects, and about the nature and effectiveness of the system of response. Also addresses needs for improvement in funding and infrastructure for research on child maltreatment.

  • US Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect. Child Abuse and Neglect: Critical First Steps in Response to a National Emergency. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1990.

    Although dated, this report remains a succinct statement of knowledge about child maltreatment and the deficiencies in the child protection system. It does not, however, cover the increase in the proportion of cases now attributed to neglect (about three-fourths), as sexual abuse and physical abuse (especially the less severe forms) have declined since 1990.

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