Child Welfare League of America, “Definition of Child Welfare,” 1957

The following is part of the definition of child welfare articulated by the Child Welfare League of America in the mid-1950s. It was part of an ambitious effort to define standards that would, according to League President Marshall Field, finally “take the ‘folklore’ out of child care and would substitute in its place the most scientific knowledge currently available” in “psychology, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, genetics, pediatrics, child development and medicine.” The standards project produced Standards for Adoption Service in 1958. This lengthy handbook detailed the protections that birth parents, children, and adopters should be offered and described exactly what should happen before, during, and after children were placed. It was revised in 1968, 1973, 1978, and 1988. The newest revision is Child Welfare League of America, Standards of Excellence for Adoption Services, 2000.

Nature and Needs of the Child
The distinctive aspects of social work practice in the field of child welfare are derived from the nature of the child, particularly his characteristics of dependency and development; and from the special concern and responsibility for children which all social groups have. . . .

Furthermore, because it is universally recognized that the years of childhood are of particular significance for his future development, whatever happens to the child during the developmental process is of concern as it may promote, interfere with or adversely affect the kind of development which is considered desirable. Moreover, the community or state has a real stake in this, in his becoming the kind of person whom it needs or wants, who will perpetuate its traditions, values and ideals. . . .

The family has, through the parents particularly, assured the child of the close and continuing individual relationships, attention, concern, special interest and love which we now recognize to be the most important stimulants of healthy development. We can therefore say that the primary and unique need of the child is for parental care. . . .

Social Problem
It is because of the primary social problem of deprivation of parental care that child welfare services have a responsibility and a purpose that differentiate them from other kinds of treatment or social services; and require specialized knowledge, understanding and skills. . . . In its most extreme form the problem may need for its solution temporary or permanent substitute parental care as provided by foster care and adoption services. . . .

Social Responsibility
Various kinds of provisions for dealing with the problems that result when the child’s need for parental care is unmet have been made by social groups, out of their special concern for children. In doing so, the social group in effect takes over or shares part of the parental function, namely, the responsibility for seeing to it that the needs of the child are met. The assumption of this responsibility, in proportion to the degree which parents cannot or are not expected to carry it, is a distinguishing characteristic of those social services which provide help for children whose need for parental care is not being adequately met. . . .

For the most part, child welfare services are provided by authorized social agencies to which has been delegated by law responsibility for some aspect of parental care.


Source: Child Welfare League of America, “Definition of Child Welfare,” 1957, Child Welfare League of America Papers, Box 12, Folder 10, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
Site designed by:

To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
About the Project and the Author
© Ellen Herman