IPT Book Reviews

Title: The Politics of Child Abuse in America  Positive Review
Authors: Lela B. Costin, Howard Jacob Karger, and David Stoesz
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1996
Oxford University Press, Inc.
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$15.95 (p)

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The central thesis of this 208-page book is that the United States' child protection system is a failure. It has collapsed under the weight of inherent contradictions, the negative impact of an ideological political process, and the inability of the social work profession to address child protection work. On the face of it, this sounds highly inflammatory and overly hostile. Yet, the authors have managed to present a balanced and well-supported case. This means their position merits a reasoned and careful consideration.

The first chapter describes the contradictions in the system. The authors assert that the change to seeing child abuse as a middle-class phenomenon both misrepresents the scientific data and leads to ignoring the reality that abuse is primarily associated with poverty and the lower-class culture. This results in a rising number of poor, minority children who are not protected or assisted.

Chapters 2 and 3 succinctly describe the historic developments leading up to the current system of child protection. The material presented in these chapters calls into question the oft-repeated claim that nobody paid any attention to child abuse until the contemporary child savers emerged. Chapter 4 portrays the beginning of the current system with the battered child syndrome. This occurs within the medical model but, as the system developed with an initial emphasis on foster care, which does not work well, the shift was made to a psychological model of family preservation. This, too, does not work well.

Chapter 5 asserts that the system has failed and does not protect children. The book describes how it has collapsed under the weight of the high turnover of welfare workers, high caseloads, poor working conditions, and inadequate and ineffective screening and investigative procedures. Another factor seldom mentioned is the description of the way the social work profession has abandoned social welfare work for private practice and psychotherapy.

The final chapter is a proposal for the revitalization and restructuring of child protection activities by forming a Children's Authority, a local board to oversee the actions and functions of child protection. This entity is offered as a way to reinvent government and to bring coherence and stability to child protection agencies.

The book is interesting and reads well. It brings together many of the criticisms and problems that others have seen in the child protection system. It is recommended for those who want to understand why the system does not work and what is going wrong.

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies.

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