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Welcome to Child Welfare History, developed and presented by the Indiana Child Welfare Education and Training Partnership. This training is available in different formats for State of Indiana employees and School of Social Work students. Scroll down the page for instructions on how to take this training.

State Employee Training #

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School of Social Work: Student Training #

First Child Abuse Case: Mary Ellen Wilson


The case of Mary Ellen Wilson (1874) is significant in child welfare history because it inspired the establishment of private child welfare agencies and later, local and state child welfare agencies. Mary Ellen Wilson was subjected to physical abuse by her custodial parents. Neighbors heard her crying and wailing, but no one intervened. Etta Wheeler, a Methodist mission worker for the poor, learned about Mary Ellen. With uncertain legal precedents regarding the removal and prosecution of child abuse, she sought legal assistance and received help from two influential attorneys: Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Elbridge T. Gerry, who would later found the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC). Mary Ellen's custodial parents were convicted of felonious assault and sentenced to one year of hard labor in prison. Mary Ellen moved to the home of Etta Wheeler's mother and lived to be 92 years old.

The establishment of the Children’s Bureau


It was one of the first federal agencies to address the welfare of children. The agency investigated and reported on all matters pertaining to the welfare of children. It monitored the conditions of orphanages and the state of child labor throughout the United States. The agency also investigated infant mortality, birth rates, orphanages, juvenile courts, desertion, dangerous occupations, accidents and diseases of children, employment, and legislation affecting children in the several states and territories. The Children’s Bureau is still in operation as a division of the Administration for Children and Families, a subdivision of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

The establishment of the Social Security Act


The Social Security Act of 1935, which created the Social Security system in the United States, also made provisions for child welfare. Under Title IV-B of the Social Security Act, the federal government provided funds to states, tribes, and territories for the provision of child welfare-related services to children and their families. Title IV-B authorized the first federal grants to encourage states to establish child welfare agencies.

The modern child welfare system


The modern child welfare system was shaped by medical research on the physical abuse of children, a growing public awareness of child welfare issues and public criticism of the child welfare system.

Battered Child Syndrome

In 1946, Dr. John Caffey published a paper describing six young children with subdural hematomas and fractures of the legs or arms. He began to link unexplained fractures in children with cases of purposefully inflicted trauma. His research spurred interest in the medical community about the subject of physical abuse in children. In 1962, C. Henry Kempe and Brandt Steele published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled 'The Battered Child Syndrome.' Their research helped doctors identify child abuse, its effects, and declared the need to report serious physical abuse to legal authorities. By 1967, as a result of medical research on abuse, all states had laws requiring medical personnel to report abuse. As public awareness of child abuse and child welfare issues increased, the system fell under greater scrutiny. In 1959, Henry Mass and Richard Engler published a study of children in foster care entitled 'Children in Need of Parents.' Its findings highlighted major problems with the modern child welfare system and defined the debate about how to solve these issues.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and The Indian Child Welfare Act


In the 1970s, the federal government passed two key laws to address significant problems in the child welfare system: the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act

In 1974, Congress enacted the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which provides federal funding to states in support of the prevention, assessment, investigation, and prosecution of child abuse and neglect. Specific provisions include: Grants to public agencies and nonprofit organizations, including Indian Tribes and Tribal organizations, for educational programs and projects. Establishment of the Office on Child Abuse and Neglect and mandates for the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information. A minimum definition of child abuse and neglect. Mandatory reporting of abuse and neglect statistics tied to federal funding. Indiana became compliant with CAPTA in 2006.

Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which set federal requirements that apply to state child custody proceedings involving an Indian child who is a member of, or eligible for membership in, a federally recognized tribe. Prior to ICWA, in some states, as many as 35% of Indian children were removed from their parents for alleged neglect or abuse. The majority of these children were placed in non-Indian foster homes, adoptive homes, and institutions.

Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act and The Independent Living Program


During the 1970s, new child abuse reporting laws and broader awareness of child abuse led to more interventions and a greater number of children in long-term foster care. In the 1980s, Congress passed legislation that addressed growing concerns about family preservation and permanency, including the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act and the Independent Living Program.

Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 established family preservation efforts to help keep families together and children out of foster care or other out-of-home placements. Enacted in 1980, this law also focuses on family reunification or adoption if a child is removed from the home, providing an adoption subsidy for special needs children. It includes specific provisions such as regular judicial reviews for children in foster care with an emphasis on returning them home as soon as possible, defining special needs children as those who can't return home, have a condition that makes placement without assistance challenging, and those who have not been placed in an adoptive home in the past without assistance. It also prevents children from being placed out-of-home by showing that 'reasonable efforts' have been made to keep a child at home. Additionally, a plan must be determined regarding a child's future within 18 months after being placed in foster care, whether the plan is family reunification, adoption, or to continue in foster care. To receive federal matching funds, states must demonstrate that 'reasonable efforts' have been made to keep children out of the system and with their family, and to return children that have been removed as soon as possible.

Independent Living

Authorized by Congress in 1986 out of concern that adolescents aging out of the foster care system were not equipped to live independently, a specific provision was included to address this issue. This provision encompassed the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 and the Adoption and Safe Families Act, along with funding for states to help older foster youth make the transition from foster care to independence.

Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 and Adoption and Safe Families Act


In the 1990s, child welfare work shifted its emphasis to assessing risks to children and identifying family strengths to build upon. A new focus was placed on permanency for children, rather than allowing them to grow up in foster care. This shift was highlighted through the implementation of the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 and the Adoption and Safe Families Act, both of which aimed to ensure more stable and permanent outcomes for children in the foster care system.

Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA)

The prohibition of discrimination in foster care or adoption placements based on the race, color, or national origin of the parent or child was established. State agencies and other entities receiving federal funds involved in foster care or adoption were also prohibited from denying anyone the opportunity to become a foster or adoptive parent based solely on the race, color, or national origin of the parent or child. Additionally, there was an emphasis on considering the cultural, ethnic, or racial background of a child and the capacity of the adoptive or foster parent to meet the needs of a child with that background

Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA)

The focus on the safety, permanency, and well-being of children in foster care establishes a framework for the current welfare system. This approach requires that a motion for the termination of parental rights be filed within 15 of the most recent 22 months that the child has been removed from the parents. This is to prevent children from being lost in the system and ensures that reasonable efforts are made toward family reunification.

Indiana Department of Child Services


In 2005, Governor Mitch Daniels placed a high priority on the welfare of children and created, by executive order, the Department of Child Services (DCS). This department was later established by legislative action in the same year. DCS became a stand-alone department of state government with a cabinet-level director reporting directly to the governor. The goal of forming DCS was to improve outcomes for children involved in the child welfare system in Indiana and to bring the state into compliance with federal child welfare standards.