Evolving conceptions of elder mistreatment, and the appropriate social responses to it, will also be shaped, inevitably, by the deep concerns that have emerged over the past decade in the field of child protection. In 1990, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect issued a highly publicized and rarely disputed declaration of a national emergency in the child protection system. By that time, the number of cases reported annually to state and county social service and law enforcement agencies in the United States approached 3 million—a number enormously discrepant from the 1962 estimate of Kempe et al. of approximately 300 cases annually. Moreover, the advisory board found that, by state social service agencies’ own admission, many children officially found to have been maltreated received no services other than the investigation itself.
The U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect (1990) attributed the emergency to the errant design of the child protection system itself: the system has become preoccupied by investigation (rather than prevention and treatment), and community responsibility for ensuring the safety of dependent children has effectively, if unintentionally, been diverted to a small social service agency. In response, the board (U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1993) proposed a new national strategy designed to rely on voluntary action to make child protection a part of everyday life (see Melton and Barry, 1994, Melton et al., 2001, for edited books articulating the social science foundation for this approach). As Wolfe notes in his paper in this volume, several states have attempted to deemphasize investigation in their state child protection statutes, and some major foundations have undertaken initiatives to demonstrate the feasibility of a neighborhood-based, largely voluntary, and largely preventive and supportive child protection system. Nonetheless, modal practice is largely unchanged, and the enormity of the problem remains (Melton, 2002).
The tensions in child protection policy (as well as the number of reported cases) have intensified as the scope of problems defined as child maltreatment has expanded. Although the modern system was created in response to the image of battered children, neglect has long been the modal reason for referral to child protection (Peddle and Wang, 2001), and most such cases involve complex social and economic problems, not willful neglect (Pelton, 1994). Similarly, the biggest increase in reporting occurred when sexual abuse was “discovered” early in the 1980s (Weisberg, 1984), and criminal prosecution became a common feature in the child protection system.
Recognition of the frequent linkage between intimate partner violence and child maltreatment (see Carter et al., 1999) has also challenged the child protection system, which generally (except to some degree in cases of