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The rise of the child-saving movement

Anthony Platt

The child-saving movement was responsible for reforms in the ideological and institutional control of ‘delinquent’ youth. The concept of the born delinquent was modified with the rise of a professional class of penal administrators and social servants who promoted a developmental view of human behavior and regarded most delinquent youth as salvageable. The child-savers helped to create special judicial and correctional institutions for the processing and management of ‘troublesome’ youth.There has been a shift during the last fifty years or so in official policies concerning delinquency. The emphasis has shifted from one emphasizing the criminal nature of delinquency to the ‘new humanism’ which speaks of disease, illness, contagion, and the like. It is essentially a shift from a legal to a medical emphasis. The emergence of a medical emphasis is of considerable significance, since it is a powerful rationale for organizing social action in the most diverse behavioral aspects of our society. For example, the child-savers were not concerned merely with ‘humanizing’ conditions under which children were treated by the criminal law. It was rather their . aim to extend the scope of governmental control over a wide variety of personal misdeeds and to regulate potentially disruptive persons. The child-savers’ reforms were politically aimed at lower-class behavior and were instrumental in intimidating and controlling the poor.

The child-savers made a fact out of the norm of adolescent dependence. ‘Every child is dependent,’ wrote the Illinois Board of Charities in 1899, ‘even the children of the wealthy. To receive his support at the hands of another does not strike him as unnatural, but quite the reverse.’ The juvenile court reached into the private lives of youth and disguised basically punitive policies in the rhetoric of ‘rehabilitation.’ The child-savers were prohibitionists, in a general sense, who believed that adolescents needed protection from even their own inclinations.

The basic conservatism of the child-saving movement is apparent in the reformatory system which proved to be as tough-minded as traditional forms of punishment. Reformatory programs were unilateral, coercive, and an invasion of human dignity. What most appealed to correctional workers were the paternalistic assumptions of the ‘new penology’, its belief in social progress through individual reform, and its nostalgic preoccupation with the ‘naturalness’ and intimacy of a preindustrial way of life.

The child-saving movement was heavily influenced by middle-class women who extended their housewifely roles into public service. Their contribution may also be seen as a ‘symbolic crusade’ in defense of the nuclear family and their positions within it. They regarded themselves as moral custodians and supported programs and institutions dedicated to eliminating youthful immorality. Social service was an instrumentality for female emancipation, and it is not too unreasonable to suggest that women advanced their own fortune at the expense of the dependency of youth.

This analysis of the child-saving movement suggests the importance of (1) understanding the relationship between correctional reforms and related changes in the administration of criminal justice, (2) accounting for the motives and purposes of those enterprising groups who generate such reforms, (3) investigating the methods by which communities establish the formal machinery for regulating crime, and (4) distinguishing between idealized goals and enforced conditions in the implementation of correctional reforms.

Platt, A. (1969) The rise of the child-saving movement: A study in social policy and correction reform.
Annals of the American Academy
, 381, 21-38. 

 

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