Added: September 5, 2015 – Last updated: September 5, 2015


Author: Lucy Delap

Title: Child welfare, child protection and sexual abuse, 1918-1990

Subtitle: -

Journal: History & Policy: Policy Papers

Volume: -

Issue: -

Year: July 30, 2015

Pages: -

Language: English

Keywords: 20th Century | English History | Types: Child Sexual Abuse


Link: History & Policy (Free Access)


Author: Lucy Delap, Faculty of History, University of


»* Current controversies over child sexual abuse, historic and contemporary, strongly suggest that institutional responses have been neither robust nor proactive.
* Sexual abuse was well recognised as a moral and physical danger to children by voluntary and statutory social workers in the early to mid twentieth century, often described by them as incest, perversion or ‘moral danger’.
* Welfare workers, both public and philanthropic, were often primarily interested in concerns understood as involving mainly working class girls and women, such as prostitution, unmarried pregnancy, and venereal disease. These concerns meant that the sexual abuse of boys was not prioritised, and abuse of middle class children was rarely perceived.
* Oversight of children’s welfare was divided between competing branches of social work (psychiatric, moral welfare, child care etc) and other welfare professions. This made for fragmented decision making, and failures of communication between different agencies responsible for child safeguarding.
* Children were frequently depicted by welfare workers before the Second World War as sexually vulnerable, but also as being capable of making sexual choices, through descriptors such as ‘dirty’, ‘immoral’, and even ‘foul-minded’.
* Where evidence of sexual assault emerged, the reaction of welfare workers was to limit harm, often by removing a child from an abusive situation. Reporting of abuse and securing convictions was a secondary concern.
* Studies of ‘neglected children’ or ‘problem families’ in the postwar period largely emphasised the failings of mothers to provide care, and significantly downplayed any sexual threat from male kin or family friends.
* Feminist campaigning brought new attention to child physical and sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s, amongst social workers, police and the medical profession. However, there was little public support for the interventions of social workers against ‘family abuse’, particularly after the Cleveland scandal of 1987-8. Clear guidelines for best practice were not established until the 1990s.
* Notions of ‘problem families’ and ‘immoral girls’ have been updated, but still persistently influence the responses of child welfare and protection professionals today, as recent scandals in Oxford and Rotherham show. There is still some way to go to ensure implementation and monitoring of best practice at the frontline of child protection.« (Source: History & Policy Policy Papers)


  Moral welfare and rescue
  Sexual abuse, social work and the welfare state
  ‘Battered children’
  Further Reading
  About the author

Wikipedia: Child sexual abuse