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Social Work Planning for Child Abandonement

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 3621 words Published: 22nd May 2017

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Since the earliest times of humanity, the social issue of childhood abandonment, and further the social planning for this problem, has been a reality. The issue, although a fairly common occurrence in society, is a rather understudied trend. Additionally, children are a particularly vulnerable population who are often thought to be the “property” of their parents. This fact alone makes children of less importance in research as they are thought to be under the care and guidance of their mother and/or father. On the contrary, however, most prevalently documented in existing reports on children is the variations of abuse and neglect, even though physical abandonment is just as relevant, if not more important. For example, “Who speaks for Joshua?” was a question raised by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in his discussion of the plight of three-year-old Joshua DeShaney who had been beaten by his parents until permanently disabled (Ashby, 1997). What people should be asking, but aren’t, is who speaks for the millions of orphans? Adults can speak for them, of course, but with varying interests and agendas and usually not within the interest of the actual children (Ashby, 1997). There is a much stronger focus on the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of children than on their complete desertion.

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This problem is of particular importance because the number of children looking for families in orphanages, foster care, and on the streets is astonishing. It is also concerning that the children who are orphans have no control over their current situation, destiny, or fate. Sociological research has shown family to be one of the most important foundations of life; it is the first social group an individual is a part of, and the impact of the family system on an individual is crucial and wide-ranging. Social workers should better acquaint themselves with the issue of social planning for abandoned children to improve the current and future practice and policy in this area.


“Currently there is no one central source which monitors the number of children abandoned across America” (Edwards, 2000). While the parental reasons for abandonment are wide ranging, the act of desertion most often results in the child becoming a responsibility of the state, in a child welfare agency, or can at times end in death. Childhood abandonment does not have one clear all inclusive definition. The act of abandonment itself can be as harsh as leaving a child on a door step, in front of a hospital or church, or simply leaving them on the streets to fend for themselves. It could also be seen as “parent’s neglect of a child over an extended period of time” (Mason, 2009, p. 29). While the issue of childhood abandonment remains a vast problem in itself, the social planning for abandoned children is also of immense concern. Children can no longer fend for themselves on the streets; orphanages and foundling homes are not sufficient for the individuals’ attention and stimulation either (Burstein, 1981). Thus, the move from the streets to foster care, relative guardianships, or adoptive families is necessary, yet remains extremely difficult for a variety of reasons to this day. There are many problems and difficulties encountered within orphanages, foster care, and ultimately the adoption of a dependent child that need be addressed by current policy.


The social issue of childhood abandonment has been prevalent throughout history and is quite possibly the most extreme form of child neglect. There have been accounts in ancient Greece, from the Hebrews, from Europe and many other ancient civilizations (Burnstein, 1981). In the book History of Childhood (1974), author Lloyd Demause, concluded that love for children did not exist in ancient society; he stated child abandonment was common among the poor until the fourth-century B.C. Perhaps one of the earliest documentations of child physical abandonment is with Moses, who was left by “his mother in a conscious effort to save his life” (Burnstein, 1981, p. 214). Childhood abandonment can be seen in virtually every society. As early as the colonization of North America, homeless, orphaned children were already running rampant.

As much of the literature illustrates, social planning for childhood abandonment was not considered a problem until the nineteenth-century. LeRoy Ashby notes in his book Endangered Children: Dependency Neglect and Abuse in American History (1997), “concerns about endangered and needy children have been particularly evident during times of social stress” (p. 2). He also notes that most often those who “discovered” childhood abandonment were only concerned of the disorder and squalor of the growing cities and not the children themselves (Ashby, 1997). This is because children were the “hope-or threat-of the future” and thus need to be protected (Trattner, 1998). The recognition of neglect like child abandonment was not seen in North America for some time, mostly due to the fact that children remained indentured servants and “property” of their parents; childhood was not considered a crucial development phase (Trattner, 1998). A transformative view of children came in the 1700s when society began to see children “as innocents who…deserved special attention and protection” (Ashby, 1997, p.16). Much of the initial response by the colonies in child welfare matters was the result of the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law, which had significant implications for dependent children (Ashby, 1997). Similarly, the doctrine of parens patriae affirmed “the state is the ultimate parent of every child” (Ratliff, 2000). However, throughout the colonial and early national times, the extent of laws against child neglect crimes, and furthermore social planning for dependent children, remained rather unclear.

Some literature suggests that abandoned children have always been a concern in this country, but this fact is not well documented. The social problem of planning for these neglected children is not well recorded or detailed by any particular person or group of individuals seeing as its existence dates as far back to the earliest man. From the time of man’s arrival in the western world, “indenture and outdoor relief dominated the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries policies” regarding child dependency (Ashby, 1997, p. 14). However, for orphan and needy children in the 1700s, officials, fellow citizens, and familial networks responded with sympathy and concern; although their first interest remained with their own families and affairs (Ashby, 1997). Almshouses were established few and far between in the 1700s as small, emergency-only, traditional forms of child welfare (Ashby, 1997). The introduction of such almshouses and orphanages demonstrated that, by the nineteenth-century, new responses to child dependency were apparent. Many social work researchers would attribute the recognition of the social planning for dependent children to early-nineteenth century reformers who saw children as “the possibility for constructive altruism” (Trattner, 1998, p. 108). It was at this time that the child welfare movement swept into the beginning of the twentieth-century (Trattner, 1998). Although indenture systems were the way of early colonial times, they also contained suggestions of child welfare strategies which integrated a shift in values towards foster care and adoption (Ashby, 1997).

Values & Societal Institutional Arrangements

Values played a large role in identifying both the problem and possible resolutions with the issue of social planning for abandoned children in early America. First, the sensitive realization of children as more than property has been essential to the steps toward planning for dependent, neglected children. A change in early America came when society began to recognize children as “posing a sort of social problem [that can]…produce legal responses” (Dingwall, Eekelaar, & Murray, 1984, p. 208). Charles Brace, the nineteenth-century’s most effective helper of children on the streets, was quoted in saying “the child, most of all, needs individual care and sympathy” (Olasky, 1994, p. 46). Although Brace is cited much more recently in the literature on dependent child, his thoughts and values are the same upon which the first institutions combating child dependency were founded. In addition, Fredrich Froebel posed that children needed to “exercise their minds and bodies” (Trattner, 1998, p. 111). Reformers began initiating institutions, such as the orphan asylum, as a solution for the mounting crisis of parentless children (Ashby, 1997). Society had finally begun to recognize the special needs of children and unearthed a new concern for “the best interests of the child.”

The recognition of family values and the family as an elemental social institution also helped interventions, which came about on behalf of the welfare of the child. Charles Brace’s goal was to find adoptive homes for the orphans “to get them under the combination of love and discipline that parents can provide” (Olasky, 1994, p. 46). Childhood abandonment is actually first mentioned in the literature “in relation to providing basic care for parentless children” (Burnstein, 1981, p. 214). Herein lies the fact that social planning for abandoned children has been an issue for many years. In 1729 the first orphanages in the United States were founded by nuns “to provide care for a group of children whose parents died in an Indian massacre” (Lewis & Solnit, 1975). This institution, as well as many others that have since developed, served as a somewhat “replacement family” for poor neglected children. In some instances, almshouses served to keep poverty stricken families together, allowing families, most often mothers and children, to sleep in the same ward (Ashby, 1997). Many more social agencies similar to these were formed all over North America throughout the 1800s. Another value set forth in this revolutionizing era was that of reforming poverty and unrest in society. Children sheltered in the orphanages were supposed to “learn virtue and piety…industry and cleanliness,” they were educated and taught the importance of hard work (Ashby, 1997, p. 17). Religious values were also on the rise at this time; evangelical religious beliefs and humanitarian attitudes began sweeping across America (Trattner, 1998). Of the 150 orphanages founded between 1820 and 1850, nearly all were tied to religious groups (Ashby, 1997). The combination of the familial, societal, and religious values assisted in the institutions established for the abandoned children in society.

Both the values and social institutional arrangements have influenced the understanding of this problem. Family, one of the most fundamental institutional arrangements for a young impressionable child, is nonexistent to an orphan. This has contributed to our understanding that each child is entitled to grow up within a family, “they need a safe, nurturing environment with at least one adult figure” (Rosenberg, 1992, p. 171). As a society that respects the welfare of children, it is thus the responsibility of individuals to set up well-running safe havens for these orphans. Furthermore, it is society’s responsibility to provide the utmost care and protection for neglected, dependent children; whether this is in an orphanage, foster care, or with an adoptive family (Rosenberg, 1992). Due to the familial focus of the almshouses and orphanages, society further realizes that these small, drab institutions are no place for a dependent child to spend their entire young life. Institutions set forth to house dependent children, as described previously, were intended to provide basic care for parentless children. Furthermore, it thus comes to one’s attention that these institutions can quickly become overcrowded and fall short of a real family. Many almshouses, as described by historians and social work researchers, “were vile catchalls for victims of every sort of misery [and] misfortune…herded together and badly mistreated” (Trattner, 1998, p. 113). In fact, most orphanages began as “temporary homes for children who had lost one or both parents” (Ashby, 1997). This raises the question of what to do once institutions won’t suffice as home to an orphaned child or is not a safe place for a youth to reside in; the issues with social planning for orphaned children are wide-ranging and never ceasing. Our understanding, therefore, is that the social planning for dependent children needs revamping.

Further Descriptions of the Problem

The problem of childhood abandonment affects over 400 million children who live on their own on the streets of hundreds of cities around the world (ISK). The Department of Social Welfare and Development documents over 100 abandoned children turned over to them every 2 months (100 kids abandoned every 2 months). It has also been recorded that a child becomes an orphan every 2 seconds, leaving the number of dependent children looking for families and homes at an alarming, increasing rate (ISK). The population most affected by the social planning for abandoned children is most directly the orphans themselves; however, the problem also affects society at large. With an ever increasing number of dependents, the state has an obligation to care for the growing number of parentless children. Organizations and institutions must sustain their moral values and keep up their work while at the same time receiving and/or raising adequate funds (Rosenberg, 1992). Agencies can often wither away from lack of finances and loss of morale; it is important to remember the welfare of the child and attempt to sustain almshouses, orphanages, and foster homes (Dingwall, Eekelaar, & Murray, 1984). Mothers of abandoned children are also being affected, psychologically and emotionally, dealing with the loss of a child they could not afford, did not plan for, or simply could not keep. The future of society is also affected, many fear that if the practice and policy surrounding child welfare does not improve, it is feared that the destiny of America is a national catastrophe; after all, children, even dependent, neglected, and poor children, are today’s future (Trattner, 1998).

The problem of social planning for abandoned children is namely impacted socioeconomically, by societal values, and by power, or lack thereof. The problem of childhood abandonment tends to persist most often when mothers are frightened that they simply cannot provide for their offspring (Burnstein, 1981). In this case, they will desert the child due to a lack of resources to sustain the child’s well-being. Similarly, the state struggles to afford the cost of the ever increasing number of orphans who are turned over to their care (Dingwall, Eekelaar, & Murray, 1984). The issue is initially presented, however, because society values family and the protection of parentless children. Furthermore, lack of power in society, related with economic problems can create a less than desirable outcome for caring for these dependent children. Varying child welfare agencies including almshouses and orphanages have continually struggled for funds to support orphan children, and furthermore, foster homes are few and far between for a variety of reasons. There is a serious lack of families willing and wanting to adopt, therefore leaving orphans to permanently reside in institutions that were meant to be only temporary. The problem of social planning for the abandoned child originated mainly because of the lack of sufficient funds and the power to raise these funds. It is difficult to make a difference, or even bring the problem to the attention of powerful individuals that could make a difference, thus perpetuating the issue. Societal values, as mentioned before, have contributed to the impact of childhood abandonment; family values and the welfare of society are both concerns that sparked the onset of social planning for dependent, neglected children (Ashby, 1997).

Society’s Response to the Problem

In response to the problem of social planning for abandoned children society has long had a desire to help “the immense number of boys and girls floating and drifting about our streets” (Ashby, 1997, p. 39). In terms of governmental action, several policies have been designed to remedy the social problem. From the year 1641, legislation has continually been passed to protect the rights and lives of innocent dependent children (Ashby, 1997). In the 1700s dependent children and orphans were not cared for but, on the other hand, were considered indentured work for families (Ashby, 1997). The first establishment of orphanages, as stated previously, came about from religious institutions in the 1800s; half a century later, “concern about growing up in orphanages, private agencies began placing orphans in foster families” (Murray & Gesiriech, 2004). Starting in the early 1900s, the first state laws “preventing child abuse and neglect were passed and the first federal children’s bureau was established” (Murray & Gesiriech, 2004). Mainly, the transformation of social services at the start of the early 1960s has affected the social planning for dependent children (Gilbert & Terrell, 2010). Since the first gain of financial support in 1962, there have been changes concerning social allocations, both selective and universal, aid in functioning and economic independence in families, income maintenance, and financial grants for services (Gilbert & Terrell, 2010). However, most of the continual of these policies’ focus has been on “maintaining the family unit” (Gilbert & Terrell, 2010).

The Social Security Act of 1935 authorized the first federal grants for child welfare

services, under what later came to be known as Subpart 1 of Title IV-B of the Social

Security Act (Murray & Gesiriech, 2004). More recently, in 2008, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, P.L. 110-351 was enacted. The purpose of the Act is to amend certain aspects of Title IV-B (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) of the Social Security Act in order to “connect and support relative caregivers, improve outcomes for children in foster care, provide for tribal foster care and adoption access, improve incentives for adoption, and for other purposes” (Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008). The major provisions of the Act are as follows:

Allowed states to provide payments, and Medicaid, for kinship guardianship assistance under title IV-E for children whose relatives were taking legal guardianship and hence removing them from foster care

Provided stricter criminal background checks, including child abuse and neglect registry checks of relative guardians, and adults living in the guardian’s home.

Allowed services to continue for youth who left foster care, kinship guardianship, or adoption after age 16 by amending the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program

Helped at-risk children in foster care reconnect with family members through a variety of programs authorized by grants to state, local, and tribal child welfare agencies and

Doubled the incentive payment amounts for special needs adoptions to $4,000 and older child adoptions to $8,000 by extending the Adoption Incentive Program to the year 2013

Obliged child welfare agencies to notify all adult relatives of a child within 30 days of their removal and inform them of the options to become a placement resource for the child, and also required siblings to attempt to be put in the same placement

Required that all children receiving foster care, adoption, or guardianship payment to be enlisted in school full-time unless they were otherwise incapable due to a documented medical condition

Demanded the integration of healthcare services for children in foster care, including dental services and mental health

Required that caseworkers develop a personalized transition plan as directed by the child, 90 days prior to the child’s emancipation (Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008)

The coordination and focus of this policy, along with other statutes currently in place to combat the issue of social planning for abandoned children alleviates some of the adverse effects on the children.

In conclusion, the problem of the increasing number of abandoned children is neither a new issue, nor is the concern of social planning for orphans something newly relevant to the times. The historical overview of the social problem, including who first identified the issue, can provide a context with which to understand and provide groundwork for new directions possible in practice and policy. By examining the role of values and societal institutional arrangements, the problem can be better understood and combatted.


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