Victoria Kelly, PsyD, MSW

The following is an excerpt. To download Reflections on Child Welfare Areas of Practice, Issues, and Service Populations, Volume 1, click here.

As CWLA celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020, issues of separation, loss, and trauma are undeniable and ever-present aspects of the lived experiences of families and children involved with all child-serving systems. This reality only has become more painfully evident as the COVID-19 pandemic sheds a light on longstanding inequities and racial injustice that has roiled our country. As the movement for racial justice and anti-racist systems gains momentum, there is an historic opportunity to acknowledge and address the traumas associated with removing children from their families—whether immigrant families or those in our domestic child welfare system. The universality of traumatic experiences among the general population is now well-recognized by experts. But this has not always been the case; the awareness of trauma that now seems so self-evident is, in fact, a relatively recent development. This essay will review important developments in society’s and our field’s journey toward the recognition of and willingness to address these issues, review current ideas about best practices, and offer a look to the future.

Historical Development and Context
A number of social and cultural contexts long precluded recognition, much less acceptance, of the impact of loss and trauma. Long-buried and devastating stories have emerged of how slave auctions, which reached their pinnacle in the 1850s, wantonly broke up generations of families (Rae, 2018). Tragically, this was not an isolated occurrence in our history. To understand the collective, long-standing blindness to the suffering of children, it is necessary first to examine the attitudes and values that have shaped our consciousness and societal responses.

Modern ideas about childhood did not emerge until the late 19th century (Sommerville, 1986). Before then, there had been little appreciation of the developmental needs or vulnerabilities of children; consequently, there also were few protections. It was not until the late 19th century that the first networks of private child protection agencies began to develop in some parts of the country. Interestingly, they were modeled after existing animal protection efforts (Pecora & Whittaker, 2019).

Children routinely were separated from their parents due to poverty and placed in almshouses or industrial schools (Mason, 1972). From 1854–1929, more than 200,000 children who had been orphaned, were homeless, or were abused were sent via “orphan trains” from the East Coast to farming communities across the country under the guise of being provided with moral upbringings—often, though, they simply served as free labor. This was the largest children’s migration in our country’s history and only ended as more formal structures for foster care emerged (Warren, 1998). The widespread removal from family and forced acculturation of children who were Native American meant that by 1925, more than 83% (or more than 60,000) of Indian school-aged children were in boarding schools (Boarding School Healing Project, 2019). The partnership between CWLA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs helped promote these adoptions. Not until 2001 did CWLA publicly offer an apology for its part in this traumatic policy and commit to active reconciliation and support of Indian Child Welfare programs (Tribal Law and Policy Institute, 2011). The history of most adoptions was long shrouded in secrecy, and adoptees’ legal efforts to access their records remains a fight in many parts of the country.

As shocking as these events now may seem, it is important to note that they were supported by shared social and religious beliefs about the moral correctness of these actions (Mason, 1972). I highlight these events not just as critical parts of our history, but to demonstrate that their broad support was facilitated and sanctioned by partnerships between government, communities, and religious organizations. That support evolved out of shared values and norms: the bedrocks of how societies organize themselves. The values elucidated by these events involved the presumed need to “reform and civilize” segments of our population. When these values were coupled with the ethos of the American psyche that celebrates independence and “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps,” they coalesced into a shared belief system. That belief system focused on preventing weakness, especially of character, while promoting the ideal of moral strength and ability to contribute to society. In this “end justifies the means” rationale, empathy was sacrificed, creating a collective blindness to the experiences of those affected, all in the service to the supposed higher good. The legacy of that was an emotional coldness that affected, and still affects, our perception of and willingness to deal with many social issues.

The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children in 1909 brought national attention to the care of children (CWLA, 2010). However, the promise of this conference ultimately failed as a true turning point in our history. Instead, the remainder of the 20th century was marked by inconsistent and ambivalent efforts to address the impact and implications of separation and loss for children, as well as for the field. Many factors contributed to this ambivalence. Freudian psychology’s focus on unconscious processes such as fantasies tended to reinforce disbelief about reports of abuse (Herman, 1992). But it was John B. Watson’s popular parenting manual, Psychological Care of the Infant and Child, which, when published in 1928, influenced cultural norms that shaped generations of parents and professionals (Bigelow & Morris, 2001). Watson strongly urged parents to contain their children’s negative emotional reactions and, above all, severely limit displays of affection to “prevent coddling.”

Moreover, prevailing religious beliefs resulted in legal standards that protected the “sanctity of the family” and the rights of parents over their children—also ensuring that family secrets like child abuse and domestic violence largely remained hidden (Mason, 1994). Consequently, the forces of secrecy, denial, and emotional coldness continued to effectively mask larger recognition of children’s emotional suffering. Perhaps one of the most stunning revelations of this came in 1953, when Alfred Kinsey’s controversial landmark research on sex reported that 25% of girls under the age of 14 claimed some form of sexual abuse (Kinsey et al., 1953). Yet, astonishingly, this evoked virtually no public outcry compared to that over the reported prevalence of premarital sex and adultery (Geddes,1954).

Victoria Kelly, PsyD, MSW, is a board member of CWLA. She retired as director of the Delaware Division of Family Services. Prior to that appointment, she served as the deputy director of Delaware’s child mental health system and as a clinician and clinical director in several community-based provider agencies. Dr. Kelly is a nationally known trainer in trauma and attachment.

Selected References
Boarding School Healing Project. (2019). U.S. Indian boarding school history. Minneapolis, MN: The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Retrieved from
Bigelow, K.M., & Morris, E.K. (2001). John B. Watson’s advice on childrearing: some historical context. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 10(1), 20-30.
Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). (2010). Reviving the White House Conference on Children. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from
Geddes, D.P. (Ed.) (1954). An analysis of the Kinsey research on human males and females. New York: New American Library.
Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W., Martin, C., & Gebhard, P. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Mason, P.T. (1972). Child abuse and neglect, Part 1: Historical overview, legal matrix and social perspectives. NCL Review, 50(2), 293-350.
Pecora, P., & Whitaker, J.J. (2019). The child welfare challenge: Policy, practice and research (4th Edition). New York: Routledge.
Rae, N. (2018). The great stain: Witnessing American slavery. New York: The Overlook Press.
Sommerville, C.J. (1986). The rise and fall of childhood. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
Tribal Law and Policy Institute. (2011). CWLA apology. Keynote address at ICWA Conference.
Warren, A. (1998, November). The orphan trains. The Washington Post. Retrieved from