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From Day Care Centers to Prisons

In the 1960s, America discovered the problem of child abuse. But instead of universal childcare, we got prisons.

Preschool children listen to the story of “The Three Little Javelinas” during story time at Barksdale Air Force Base, LA, June 6, 2016. U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Curt Beach

In the early 1970s, the phrase “child abuse” had just entered the cultural lexicon. “There is hardly a more heinous crime than the brutal abuse of children by adults to whom they look for love and protection,” read a New York Times editorial in 1969. “Society has been shamefully late in coming to their protection.” Startled out of their obliviousness, Americans suddenly began to see child abuse everywhere, and a consensus emerged that something had to be done.

Two paths lay at the nation’s feet, and which one we took would depend on whether we thought the problem was more socioeconomic or more psychological. If socioeconomic, then the solution was to make a major public investment in universal social programs to assist parents and children alike — that is, to focus on the external environments that foster abuse. But if the problem was more psychological, the solution would entail a greater focus on internal environments, in the form of identifying and criminalizing perpetrators.

We opted for the latter. And now, several decades and moral panics later, the most substantial legacy of the modern awakening to child abuse is a raft of punitive laws designed to root out and punish pedophiles. It was a missed opportunity: the provocations of the child abuse moment could have resulted in universal preschool instead.

“The Battered-Child Syndrome”

The child sexual and physical abuse panic reached its zenith in the 1980s with the prosecution of day-care abuse cases across the country, many of which were alleged to involve satanic and other bizarre rituals. But the seed of the panic was planted a couple decades earlier, with an important intervention from genuinely concerned medical professionals.

“The turning point came in 1962,” writes Richard Beck in his account of the eighties child sexual abuse panic, We Believe the Children, “when a Denver physician named C. Henry Kempe published ‘The Battered-Child Syndrome’ in the Journal of the American Medical Association.” Kempe had reviewed injury reports from hospitals around the nation and identified hundreds of cases in which parents were believed to have intentionally caused children’s injuries.

The article sparked significant medical and professional interest in the subject: whereas there had been only nine articles on child abuse published in the entire decade preceding Kempe’s publication, there were 260 in the decade that followed. The press and the general public weren’t far behind.

Articles at first reported that the incidence of abuse itself was escalating. “Children who are assaulted by their own parents are not a new phenomenon in this country,” reported the Times in 1965, “but there has been a sudden increase in the brutality of the attacks.” In 1967, the number of child abuse cases in court surged 70 percent in a single year. It soon became evident to experts that rather than a spike in violence, the nation was experiencing a rapid expansion in the definition and awareness of abuse, which in turn was causing reporting — largely by doctors, teachers, and neighbors, who were newly familiar with the concept — to skyrocket.

By 1969 social workers’ caseloads had become unmanageable, and task forces were assembled to make recommendations to legislators regarding the proper course of action. Meanwhile, the child abuse human-interest story had made its debut as a media genre. “Slain Child’s Life Called Nightmare” read a headline in 1969. “Inquiry Begins In Death Of Baby By Starvation,” read one in 1970.

The media attention led to more popular awareness, which in turn led to more reporting and more overburdened public services, contributing to mounting pressure on lawmakers. In under a decade the people of America had started whistling a new tune: child abuse was now recognized as a clear and present danger, and politicians had better put an end to it.

A Holistic Solution

The first glimmers of child abuse awareness coincided with the dawn of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, an era of American politics dominated by the liberal endeavor to address economic inequality and racial injustice through sweeping federal policy. It’s no surprise then that some of the first reactions to the child abuse phenomenon stressed the importance of social programs as a solution. “Unless laws are accompanied,” read a Times article in 1965, “by provision for preventative and rehabilitative services — that the community will pay for and support — all society is doing is to jail the parents. That is not likely to contribute much to human happiness — or to the protection of defenseless children.”

This was the spirit in which Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota brought to Congress the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 (CCDA). “A textbook example of Great Society optimism and ambition,” writes Beck, “the bill would have funded the single-greatest expansion of federal children’s services in the country’s history.” 1960s progressives had passed Civil Rights legislation and created Medicaid and Medicare. This legislation would be an equally bold contribution on behalf of children and parents.

The relationship between child physical and sexual abuse and poverty is clearly observable. Federal studies have found that children from poor families experience abuse at three times the rate of other children and that the incidence of neglect is seven times higher for poor children. The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform suggests that the causal distinction owes to two factors: first, poverty increases the incidence of neglect by presenting material obstacles for parents to provide support for a child’s wellbeing. Second, poverty increases parental stress, and stress is highly correlated with child abuse — often mediated by stress-exacerbated factors like substance abuse and untreated mental illness.

While we know more about this explicit relationship now than we did in 1971, the connection between socioeconomic conditions and the children’s overall health was not lost on the architects of the CCDA. The bill stated that “millions of American children are suffering unnecessary harm from the lack of adequate child development services, particularly during early childhood years” and that “a comprehensive child development program, including a full range of health, education, and social services, is essential to the achievement of the full potential of Americans’ children and should be available as a matter of right to all children regardless of economic, social, and family background.”

The legislation furthermore implicitly connected mistreatment of children to the society’s dereliction of its responsibility to provide adequate assistance to adults, stating, “Society does little to help parents. There are few programs which provide good day care, which aid in developing more adequate child-rearing techniques, or which assist in times of temporary family crisis or where children are neglected or abused.”

It therefore proposed to establish a federally funded day-care program. The day cares would function as preschools, offering early childhood education as well as broader “development centers” that would also provide nutrition and access to medical care. The program would be fully universal, paid for by taxes, and available to all.

Feminists had spent the final years of the sixties arguing that the burden on mothers alone to care for young children was squandering women’s opportunity and potential, and the National Organization of Women had been a major proponent of the CCDA. Accordingly the legislation clarified up front its intent to deliver greater freedom to mothers at the same time as it helped foster healthier environments for children. The bill stated, “While no mother may be forced to work outside the home as a condition for using child development programs, such programs are essential to allow many parents to undertake or continue full- or part-time employment, training, or education.” It would be a holistic solution to a nexus of problems which, however complicated, started and ended with the wellbeing of an entire family.

The legislation passed both houses of Congress. But the sixties were over. Richard Nixon was in the Oval Office, having been carried there on a wave of reactionary political sentiment. He vetoed the bill.

Many historians have focused on the socially conservative reasoning Nixon used to justify his veto. Indeed, he wrote of the bill’s “family-weakening implications” and warned against “communal approaches to child rearing,” dog-whistling to anti-feminists and Cold War anti-communists alike. But crucially, those comments are found alongside a broader indictment of the legislation, which stresses its “fiscal irresponsibility” and justifies the veto on the grounds that it would constitute a misallocation of public funds. While Nixon relied heavily on family values rhetoric to support his decision, he appears to have been at least equally motivated by an unwillingness to devote major federal resources to a universal public program, as his predecessor had done.

“Given the limited resources of the Federal budget, and the growing demands upon the Federal taxpayer,” Nixon wrote, “the expenditure of two billions of dollars in a program whose effectiveness has yet to be demonstrated cannot be justified.” Foreshadowing the era of neoliberal austerity and privatization to come, he added, “The Federal Government’s role wherever possible should be one of assisting parents to purchase needed day care services in the private, open market, with Federal involvement in direct provision of such services kept to an absolute minimum.”


Don’t Mention Poverty

“The lesson Mondale learned from Nixon’s veto,” wrote Jill Lepore in the New Yorker, “was that the care of children had to be distanced from the care of the poor.” The Great Society was dead, and solving endemic social problems with comprehensive social reform was apparently a nonstarter.

Child abuse was still on everyone’s minds, however, and lawmakers continued to feel pressured by constituents to address it. Thus in the midst of an unrelenting uproar about child abuse — which increasingly focused on a new dimension: child sexual abuse — Mondale tried again.

In 1973, still feeling the sting of his earlier defeat, Mondale introduced a totally different type of legislation with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). The substantive shift is evident in the names of the two pieces of legislation. The Comprehensive Child Development Act was just that: comprehensive. Starting from the premise that the suffering of parents and children were co-implicated, the CCDA was meant to simultaneously improve the lives of children and their parents, particularly their mothers. It was also meant to address multiple social and economic injustices at once: it was a universal program, which meant everyone would benefit, but it would also disproportionately help the poor people who needed relief the most — and especially, due to unequal racial distributions of wealth, non-white poor families.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, on the other hand, focused specifically on child abuse itself, elevating the symptom to the status of disease. The bill contained no provisions for universal social benefits or welfare programs. Instead it created the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect and provided “federal funding and guidance to states in support of prevention, assessment, investigation, prosecution, and treatment activities.” It was not aimed at addressing the underlying socioeconomic issues that correlated with incidence of the problem. Instead it was specifically oriented toward intervening after the fact.

Mondale understood the relationship between poverty and child abuse, but he believed based on his prior experience that an overt coupling of the two would dampen the bill’s prospects. During the congressional hearings, Mondale called as a witness David Gil, one of the country’s earliest and most respected experts on child abuse. But when Gil started to talk about the coincidence of abuse and poverty, and the need for more substantive poverty-oriented policy reform, Mondale cut him off.

After an exchange in which Mondale compelled Gil to admit that child abuse “is known to occur in every strata of our society,” Gil protested that while he recognized that “the factors that lead to abuse among the well-to-do are the same that also lead to abuse among the poor . . . the poor have in addition many more factors.”

Mondale responded, “This is not a poverty problem; it is a national problem.” Thus the link between poverty and child abuse was excised from the conversation, and the justification for social programs like universal childcare was similarly made to disappear. After Gil left the stand, another witness was called to discuss the importance of equipping parents with “inner resources” to prevent abuse — as opposed to, presumably, outer resources. In the end, the legislation passed.

David Gil later wrote, “If one’s priority is to prevent all child abuse, one must be ready to part with its many causes, even when one is attached to some of them, such as the apparent blessings, advantages, and privileges of inequality.”

Satanic Panic

In the 1980s, the mounting fear of child sexual abuse blossomed into a genuine panic among adults. Schools and day cares were the locus of the hysteria. Children claimed they’d experienced outlandish and grotesque abuses at the hands of one teacher after another. The confessions were an admixture of children’s daydreams and adults’ lurid fantasies. Recounts Richard Beck:

In North Carolina, children said that their teachers had thrown them out of a boat into a school of sharks. In Los Angeles, children said that one of their teachers had forced them to watch as he hacked a horse to pieces with a machete. In New Jersey, children said their teacher had raped them with knives, forks, and wooden spoons, and a child in Miami told investigators about homemade pills their caretakers had forced them to eat. The pills, the child said, looked like candy corn, and they made all of the children sleepy. Children in various cases said they had been taken to graveyards, sometimes to kill baby tigers and sometimes to dig up bodies, which were removed from their coffins and stabbed.

These confessions were almost all false, coerced by professionals who — pioneering powerful new forms of therapy like hypnosis to recover repressed memories and guided in their absolute belief in the prevalence of abuse — asked the children one leading question after another, unwittingly coauthoring fantasy fiction with their charges. Thousands of people young and old were traumatized or had the course of their lives permanently altered during this period. The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, an agency set up by CAPTA, was a minor partner in the delirium, issuing a report in 1988 stating that “ritualistic abuse is increasingly being recognized as a threat to children.”

While many cultural currents converged in the so-called satanic panic, not least among them the rise of the evangelical right wing, there is a clear connection to the policy decisions of the early seventies. Though both houses of Congress initially agreed that a socioeconomic approach to the problem of child abuse was appropriate, the implementation of their plan was thwarted by a new presidential administration with dwindling interest in universal public programs. Thus, as a matter of pragmatic solutionism, a less collective and more individualistic analysis was brought to bear on the problem. But the emphasis on the “inner resources” of individual adults — rather than the outer resources furnished or withheld by society — set us on a course that culminated in mass hysteria.

The psychologization of the child abuse problem laid the groundwork for the emergence of a new archetype of child abuser: the pedophile. Child abuse became synonymous with deranged psychopathy and an inability to control twisted libidinal desires. The state’s responsibility vis-à-vis child abusers, then, was to identify irredeemably disturbed individuals and purge them from society — and from a collective unconscious gripped by terror.

Eventually the rash of false ritual abuse allegations subsided (Pizzagate notwithstanding). But it was resolved in a particular manner, with consequences that linger today: the hyper-stigmatization and hyper-criminalization of pedophile sex offenders. Starting with the panic in the eighties, law after law has been added to the books condemning pedophile sex offenders to unprecedented ostracization. Not even convicted murderers released from prison face the same degree of scrutiny and restraint that pedophile sex offenders do: in many states, they cannot live near schools, parks, churches, or any place children congregate. In some municipalities there are only a few tiny pockets where it’s legal for a convicted pedophile sex offender to reside, leading to tent cities full of banished men, deemed unworthy of reform. Richard Beck writes:

Politicians and their constituents enthusiastically support these laws in spite of a large body of research showing that child abusers almost never first encounter their victims in a “place where children congregate”; usually they encounter their victims, to whom they are often related, in private homes. These laws, in turn, both respond to and reinforce a set of widely shared beliefs about the psychology of the sex offender who victimizes children, who is understood to have an illness, to have no self-control whatsoever, to be utterly helpless in the face of his desires. Again, studies showing that child molesters actually have a rather low recidivism rate relative to those convicted of other violent crimes have done little to modify the public perception of the pedophile as a uniquely monstrous figure.

There is a growing body of research supporting the argument that not only do these laws fail to protect children, they may actually increase recidivism rates and endanger them further. And in any case, far from purging the pedophile from our collective unconscious and restoring peace of mind, the particularity of these laws reifies the pedophile figure as singularly predatory and ubiquitous, sowing paranoia and confusion and making it difficult to get a handle on a very real social problem.

And to think, we could’ve had universal childcare instead.