NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Problem With "Medicalizing" Child Abuse

November 2, 2000

Child Protective Services have replaced the child welfare offices of yesteryear. But more than just the name has changed: the mission of these agencies has expanded beyond social services to deal with the criminal problem of child abuse and neglect.

As a result of the of the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), first passed in 1973, state laws all define child abuse and neglect the same way; all require professionals to report suspicions under threat of prosecution; and all provide confidentiality to anyone involved in an investigation, from the person making the allegation to the children and family members.

Although the investigation of crime is essentially a police function, it has been put into the hands of social workers, who view parental abuse as a medical problem, to be healed by treatment. Ironically, in the process of serving "the best interests of the child," the rights of the children and parents are neglected.

  • The state conducts an investigation of a family based on an allegation and can use police power to enter a home and take children into protective custody.
  • Unlike the police, who focus on the perpetrator -- in this case, the parent -- child protection services focus instead on the victim, the child.
  • Hence, the child is removed, not the parent -- denying justice to the victim and adding to the more than 500,000 children now in state-sponsored foster care.

Thus, the pervading problem in child welfare, as with welfare before reform, is one of perverse incentives that undermine personal responsibility. Recriminalizing serious child abuse and neglect would restore parental accountability while also restoring due process rights for parents and children.

Source: Susan Orr, "Children Under Government's Wing: Not Much Protection," Insight No. 223, July 21, 2000, Family Research Council, 801 G Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001, (202) 393-2100.


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