Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children

Attorney and patrician Elbridge Gerry founded the first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in New York City in December 1874. The NYSPCC sparked a movement. Within twenty-five years, over 150 organizations across the nation joined the effort to protect children from abuse. Gerry's involvement in the rescue of an eight-year-old girl, Mary Ellen, from her physically abusive guardians had persuaded him of the need to organize a society to protect children. What made the idea so contagious?

Since the mid-eighteenth century, many Americans had become increasingly sensitive to the pain of others, a development evidenced by their establishment of innumerable volunteer societies to ameliorate suffering. Most famously, these new "humanitarians" struggled for the abolition of slavery. The establishment of SPCCs came very late in the humanitarian revolution, even after the movement to protect animals from abuse. Before the Mary Ellen case, Elbridge Gerry worked as a lawyer for Henry Bergh, founder of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Only after repeated criticisms of his seeming indifference to the plight of children did Bergh instruct Gerry to help a concerned charity worker named Etta Wheeler rescue Mary Ellen.

Humanitarian reformers had expressed concern for children before the 1870s, organizing efforts to end the corporal punishment of school children, creating institutions to care for ORPHANS, and even sending orphans by train to foster families in the West. But reformers were reluctant to interfere in families, which had a recognized right to privacy. By the 1870s, the relative weights of the concern for children and the concern for family privacy had shifted. Mary Ellen's residence with foster parents (her biological parents were dead) may have eased her protectors' willingness to cross that boundary. Differences in class and culture also facilitated the creation of the SPCCs. The organizations were directed by wealthy, conservative, Protestant white men, whereas their clientele were mostly poor, Catholic immigrant families or poor black families. These were powerful distinctions during the late nineteenth century.

Their founders conceived of the SPCCs as law enforcement agencies. Agents were to find abused children–on the street or through tips made by concerned neighbors, relatives, and even the abused children themselves–investigate their families, and prosecute abusers. Many states gave the societies police powers, such as the right to issue warrants, or allowed the police to aid them. Most importantly, "the cruelty" (as SPCC agents were sometimes known in poor neighborhoods) could remove children from their homes.

In the early twentieth century the SPCCs made a radical shift from policing to welfare work. In 1903 the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children elected Grafton Cushing to be the agency's new president. Cushing believed that SPCCs had to prevent abuse by fixing the social problems that underlay it. He hired C. C. Carstens, who had a background in charity work, to lead the MSPCC along its new path. Carstens shifted the agency's focus from physical abuse to neglect, which he believed stemmed from bad social conditions. Instead of investigating and prosecuting families, his agents were to prevent family breakdown. Many other SPCCs followed Carstens's lead.

The new approach redressed a serious deficiency in the earlier model, but it also created new problems. The social problems identified by agents were sometimes better reflections of their own prejudices than of the objective problems poor families suffered. The agents often confused poverty with malfeasance, or blamed victims for their traumas. Many criticized mothers who worked as neglectful, even if the family depended on her income. Girls who had been molested or raped were labeled sexual delinquents. Women who separated from abusive husbands were faulted for desertion. Carstens himself believed that hereditary "mental feebleness" was the primary source of neglect, and supported the sterilization of people with "mental defects." These judgments carried more than moral weight; they figured into the agents' calculations about who would receive financial aid.

The shift to welfare work also deflected the public's attention from the problem of physical abuse. Many of the welfare functions of the SPCCs were taken over by the federal government during the New Deal. For example, Title IV of the Social Security Act (1935) established the AID TO DEPENDENT CHILDREN Program, which distributed benefits to female-headed families. Case workers also scrutinized the moral "suitability" of recipient families, much as SPCC agents had done. However the effort to stop physical abuse was forgotten. The brutal treatment of children did not become an important issue again until the 1960s, when the widespread use of x-ray technology revealed to doctors the histories of trauma underlying many childhood injuries.

See also: Brace, Charles Loring; Child Abuse; Child Saving; Law, Children and the; New York Children's Aid Society; Orphan Trains; Police, Children and the.


Antler, Joyce, and Stephen Antler. 1979. "From Child Rescue to Family Protection." Children and Youth Services Review 1: 177–204.

Costin, Lela B. 1996. The Politics of Child Abuse in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gordon, Linda. 1988. Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence. New York: Viking.

Pleck, Elizabeth. 1987. Domestic Tyranny: The Making of Social Policy Against Family Violence from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press.