PULLMAN, Wash.–“Endangered Children,” LeRoy Ashby’s new history of U.S. social policy toward children, is not altogether bleak. Earlier this century, for example, the “child-saving” efforts of the Progressive Era produced innovative and humane approaches to dependent children. Even now, in the midst of what he terms a backlash against child welfare, Ashby identifies a few exceptions.
“There have been some good moments, and there have been some really important humane efforts,” says Ashby, a historian at Washington State University. “But overall, the American record in dealing with children of dependency, neglect or abuse is not an uplifting story at all.”
Dependent children, he writes, were among the first English colonists in North America. Some were homeless even before they left England, and others were orphaned on the voyage over. Indentured children were common in the colonies, their circumstances often shrouded in mystery. As late as the early 19th century, dependent children occasionally were sold at auction.
A historian’s perspective can be disturbing, particularly when it reveals how society gets stuck in cycles, which Ashby ascribes to adults nearly always politicizing the “best interests” of children. “Typically,” he says, “when adults look at children, whether they’re defining what the neglected child is, or what a dependent child is, adults have looked at that problem through their own glasses.
“We end up with adults debating philosophical issues, whereas children get caught in the middle,” he says. “While adults debate, the children wait.”
Ultimately, says Ashby, economics is the arbiter of child welfare issues. “Typically when adults have defined their interests, the matter of economics becomes very central. People typically don’t want to pay taxes or any kind of fees to take care of other people’s children.”
For example, in 1989, three years after three-year-old Eli Creekmore was kicked to death by his father, stirring public outrage and a package of legislation, Washington State voters overwhelmingly defeated a “children’s initiative” that would have provided additional funds for children’s services. The initiative would have increased sales tax by one-percent.
Because economics limits public concern for children’s issues, consciousness tends to rise only in brief bursts of outrage. Ashby looks at the history of child welfare in this country as a predictable cycle of long lack of interest punctuated by sudden shockers.
He cites the recent case of Elisa Izquierdo, the six-year-old New York City child whose mother beat her, forced her to eat feces and mopped the floor with her head before the child finally died from a blow to her head. The public outcry and coverage echoed the brutal killing eight years previously of Lisa Steinberg by her adoptive father.
“Yet the subsequent death of some seven hundred other children in New York City alone as a result of abuse or neglect had barely made the news, until the killing of Izquierdo,” writes Ashby.
As a historian, Ashby is intrigued by the moments of discovery, the provocations that lead society to recognize a problem, whether it be social policy toward dependent children or sexual abuse.
No matter how shocking the revelations, however, that discovery is invariably followed by a backlash, says Ashby. For example, “(Aid to Dependent Children) became a popular target of postwar opposition to the New Deal’s welfare legacy.”
He also points to the Welfare Reform Act of last year as part of the cyclical backlash. He notes that in 1992, the Washington State Republican campaign platform called for a complete end to child abuse investigations.
Also, a bill was debated by the Washington State legislature last year that proposed the definition of child abuse be limited to life-threatening abuse or abuse that damages an organ. More routine kinds of abuse could not be prosecuted. The sponsor of the bill, who had earlier been investigated by Child Protective Services for spanking a foster child with a Ping-Pong paddle and a wooden spoon, said he simply wanted to protect parents from false accusations.
But Ashby allows that American children have enjoyed brief interludes of true concern and compassion. He cites the Progressive Era as “one of the most beneficial periods in American history for dependent and neglected children.”
The Junior Republics and other “anti-institutions” formed during the Progressive Era were “marvelously innovative” in their approach to orphaned children, says Ashby. Experimental orphanages such as Good Will Farm succeeded, if briefly, in breaking the pattern of orphan warehousing. Founder George Hinckley was determined that children under his care would never encounter the conditions he had read about as a child. He did not permit drills, uniforms, or even residential cottages that looked alike.
More recently, says Ashby, there are notable efforts in defense of children.
The Children’s Defense Fund, for example, “actually thinks about children.” He also praises a group called Children’s Rights Incorporated, which having given up on legislatures, works through the courts to pressure states to honor their federal obligations and enact more enlightened policies toward children. A group in Tacoma, Homebuilders, works intimately with troubled families in an attempt to preserve the family.
But inevitably, says Ashby, the tremendous energy and innovation required for such efforts dissipates.
“It’s a huge problem, how to deal with dependent, neglected and abused children,” he says. “I don’t have any answers. I don’t think there is any one answer. But what bothers me over the long haul is a general predisposition not to consider the best interest of the child. That interest is sacrificed time and time again.”
“Endangered Children: Dependency, Neglect, and Abuse in American History” is part of a series, “History of American Childhood,” published by Twayne Publishers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Macmillan. Cost of the volume is $26.95

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