The Rescue Crusade

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services currently removes over 1,000 children per month from their homes (Smith, 1996; Stevens, 1995). Do these children really all come from families who are so abusive and neglectful of their children that they need to be removed from their homes? "The majority of parents who come before our court love their children," explained Denise Kane, Inspector General of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, to a Congressional subcommittee. "Their children look to them with love and seek the attention and nurturing of their parents" (Committee on Ways and Means, 1993b). A 1990 study conducted in Illinois by the Chapin Hall Center for Children would bear this out. At least 40% of the children in foster care found the reasons for placement confusing, while one-third of them did not even know why they had a caseworker (Johnson, Yoken, & Voss, 1990).

In Illinois, as elsewhere, the vast majority of children in state care have been removed from their homes without legal excuse or justification. Psychologist and author Seth Farber (1993) notes:

Only a small minority of these children have been separated from parents who are dangerous to them. The overwhelming majority have been separated from loving and responsible parents. One does not need to be a child psychologist to realize the devastating effect of removing a child from parents with whom he or she is deeply bonded.

How did it come to pass that so many children could be unnecessarily removed from salvageable and loving homes without inspiring moral outrage? As professor of social work Leroy Pelton (1990) explains:

In the 1960s and 1970s, a child abuse crusade, based upon the discovery of the "battered child syndrome," and the social construction of child abuse as a social problem of "epidemic" proportions, served to drive the explosion in foster care placements, fueled by new child abuse and neglect reporting laws, public awareness campaigns, and increased funding for social services, much of which was used for foster care.

Among the more significant forces driving this crusade was the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, which entered into a three-year contract with the Advertising Council, Inc., of New York. This campaign, which started on September 1, 1976, included television, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards, public transportation, and public service announcements. By its own estimate, if a dollar figure were attached to the Committee's campaign, it would have been the equivalent of a $10 million public service effort.

The results of this campaign were dramatic. In 1975, there were only 294,796 reports of child abuse or neglect registered throughout the United States. By 1980, the figure had soared to 1,154,000, and by 1985 the figure was rapidly approaching two million reports per year (McCurdy & Daro, 1993).

Besharov (1985) notes that the combination of mandated reporting and these "awareness campaigns" led not only to an increase in reports, but to a marked increase in the inappropriate removal of children from their homes as well. In 1963, no state had a law mandating the reporting of suspected child abuse or neglect. By the 1980s, all 50 states had such laws in place, and, as a result of these new reporting laws, scores of children have been inappropriately removed from their homes. He observes:

In 1963, about 75,000 children were put in foster care because of abuse or neglect. In 1980, the figure had ballooned to more than 300,000. Of these children about half had been in care for at least two years, and roughly one-third for over six years. Yet, according to data collected for the federal government, it appears that up to half of these children were in no immediate danger and could have been safely left in the care of their parents.


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