Protection Of Children
For centuries children over the age of seven were considered little adults, especially the poor who often had to work to help support their families. They were also considered as "property" owned by their parents with few rights. Fathers in particular had nearly total power in disciplining and working their children, especially in farming communities where children fed and tended livestock. The government stayed away from internal family relations. As a result, no specific criminal laws addressed child abuse or neglect. Assaults or kidnapping by others were treated by general criminal laws. Such was the legal status of children during much of the American colonial period prior to the American Revolution (1775–83).
By the late eighteenth century, public perceptions of children began to shift. American society changed throughout the nineteenth century as cities grew around newly developing industrial centers. Immigration was growing as well, particularly from eastern Europe by the late part of the century. With parents working long hours in factories, children were left alone and some citizens became concerned for their well-being, worried that they were susceptible to becoming crime victims. Others were concerned about the effects of so many unsupervised children on the streets, that they could enter into criminal activity making the streets less safe for others. In addition sociological perceptions of children continued to change.
As society realized children were not just little versions of adults, ideas about child development grew. It became known that children did not have the same reasoning abilities as most adults and could not be held responsible for all of their actions, especially if they did not have proper supervision. Early promoters of children's rights believed children needed proper legal protection and special consideration in the justice system.
Other changes in society also affected children in the country after the American Civil War (1861–65). With fathers increasingly away at factory work, mothers gained greater responsibility in raising children. This trend led courts to adopt the "tender years" policy, which recognized mothers as the primary caregivers for a child's early years.
With all of these changes in attitude and growing concerns over the welfare of the young, courts applied the concept of parens patriae more freely. The concept meant that the state could act as a parent if it was believed necessary. Under this concept, the government has the duty to intervene in families to make decisions in the best interest of the children when needed.