A chapter discussing U.S. laws regarding child abuse, from Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System: A Critical Analysis from Law, Ethics, and Catholic Social Teaching, edited by Dr. Krason.
Public policy in the United States on child abuse and neglect and the formation of what we now call the child protective system (CPS)—which this article argues has been deeply troublesome—was shaped by a landmark piece of legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1974 called the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), or the “Mondale Act” (after its prime sponsor, Senator and later Vice President Walter F. Mondale). The Act made federal funds available to the states for child abuse prevention and research programs on the condition that they passed laws which mandated the following: reporting by certain professionals (such as physicians) of even suspected cases of child abuse and neglect; the setting up of specialized child protective agencies, usually housed within state and corresponding county public social service or child welfare agencies, to deal with abuse and neglect; the granting of complete immunity from criminal prosecution or civil liability for the mandated reporters and CPS investigators regardless of their actions and even if the allegations are grossly erroneous; the insuring of confidentiality of records and proceedings in each case; and the providing for appointment of a guardian ad litem in judicial proceedings for children alleged to have been abused or neglected. Effectively, CAPTA transformed public policy with respect to child abuse and neglect by means of a new federal grant-in-aid program to the states, the way in which public policy in so many different areas from the early twentieth century onward has been reshaped. CAPTA’s mandates encompassed all kinds of known and suspected child maltreatment, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and psychological and emotional maltreatment. CAPTA never defined these terms, however, and there has not been and is not today any widely accepted definition of them even among professionals working in the field. (As we shall also see, the problem of definition has been a major reason for an ongoing explosion of false abuse/neglect reports.) CAPTA further required the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (later Health and Human Services) to establish a National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect to act as “a clearinghouse for the development of information and dissemination of information about child protective research and programs.” The center, initially headed by noted child abuse expert Douglas J. Besharov (later, as we shall see, he became a major critic of current child abuse/neglect policies), used most of its funding for research and training grants to individuals and for special grants to the states. Although the latter comprised only about 20% of the available funds, it emerged as the most important part of the statute for the future of child abuse/neglect enforcement in the U.S.