Written by Professor Esther Wattenberg
The Child Welfare narrative, for some historians, is linked to this observation of a behavioral economist: "The fate of a child is determined by the accident of birth: to whom that child is born." Thus, the wheel of fate, the luck of the draw, fate without pity and fairness begins the drama of a child's future.
Social justice and fairness requires a response to this accident of fate. Clarke Chambers, our distinguished American historian and founder of the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota, provided this observation on the occasion of an early CASCW event*: "The excruciating dilemma inherent in Child Welfare is the protection of children whose parents, themselves, are victims of poverty and racism."
Now comes an instruction to all of us who are tempted to pass on insights and wisdom from history: "Enlighten us, but do it quickly."
In that vein, one has to pause, briefly of course, to acknowledge an historical event: the 100th birthday of the Children's Bureau. Infant mortality was high on their list for legislative attention. However, the issue of child labor, with horrifying accounts of dangerous, back-breaking conditions of children as young as eight, became the first item for their congressional action. This attention to child labor was cut short. The legislation in 1918 was declared unconstitutional. The Children's Bureau was warned: curbing child labor is too controversial for a beginning federal agency to initiate and support. Rather, their primary agenda item should be infant mortality: "No one can disagree with the goal of saving babies."
And now for those who collect dates that will live in infamy: In 1945 the U.S. Federal Security Administration publishes social worker Charlotte Towle's book, Common Human Needs. The Federal Government stopped publication in 1951 and burned its remaining copies because of complaints by medical associations that it advocated government-funded health care--socialism.
However, here is an historical note worth attention, because it provides the guideline for our current emphasis in child welfare: pay attention to the early years of a child's life; and grasp the life-line of social justice, as your guide for action.
Now comes the contribution of a politically engaged pediatrician who in 1919 was part of Freud's inner circle.
Elizabeth Ann Danto, a faculty member of Hunter College's School of Social Work, has written a critical essay on the work of Joseph Friedjung.**
This early advocate for universal health care, a national education system, and child protection laws, also laid the groundwork for training in child psychotherapy. Friedjung shared these insights with his psychoanalytic colleagues:
- While absorbed in the issues of sexuality in human life, do not dismiss attention to human need.
- The environment is a cause of disease in children--a negative environment of low warmth and high criticism is deadly for a child.
- When children are free from fear, they will thrive.
- Even when a child has made mistakes, the child must know that "forgiveness is a sure thing." At the end of the day, "not one of our children should live a day without love."
Friedjung introduced his pediatric colleagues to the Freudian concept of psychotherapy, in which the tangled skeins of the unconscious mind are woven into dreams, which are then unraveled for shards of wisdom in understanding behavior.
As Danto has noted, his Child Welfare legacy has survived across nations and generations.
What is particularly appealing in Danto's essay on Josef Friedjung is a reminder: While we may be engaged with the unruly politics of improving the Child Welfare system, we must never lose sight of our central obligation--learning how to be effective in healing traumatized children. Along with this, we must ask a central question: "What does this family need to function in a nurturing role?
*"A Social Justice Framework for Child Welfare: The Agenda for a New Century," edited by Esther Wattenberg, a summary of the conference held Friday, June 23, 2000 at the University of Minnesota.
**Danto, E. A. (2013). "The environment as a cause of disease in children": Josef Friedjung's transnational influence on modern child welfare theory." Child Welfare, 92(1), 159-179.