Policy Papers

Child welfare, child protection and sexual abuse, 1918-1990

Lucy Delap |

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Executive Summary

  • Current controversies over child sexual abuse, historic and contemporary, strongly suggest that institutional responses have been neither robust nor proactive. 
  • Sexual abuse was well recognised as a moral and physical danger to children by voluntary and statutory social workers in the early to mid twentieth century, often described by them as incest, perversion or ‘moral danger’.
  • Welfare workers, both public and philanthropic, were often primarily interested in concerns understood as involving mainly working class girls and women, such as prostitution, unmarried pregnancy, and venereal disease. These concerns meant that the sexual abuse of boys was not prioritised, and abuse of middle class children was rarely perceived.
  • Oversight of children’s welfare was divided between competing branches of social work (psychiatric, moral welfare, child care etc) and other welfare professions. This made for fragmented decision making, and failures of communication between different agencies responsible for child safeguarding. 
  • Children were frequently depicted by welfare workers before the Second World War as sexually vulnerable, but also as being capable of making sexual choices, through descriptors such as ‘dirty’, ‘immoral’, and even ‘foul-minded’.
  • Where evidence of sexual assault emerged, the reaction of welfare workers was to limit harm, often by removing a child from an abusive situation. Reporting of abuse and securing convictions was a secondary concern.
  • Studies of ‘neglected children’ or ‘problem families’ in the postwar period largely emphasised the failings of mothers to provide care, and significantly downplayed any sexual threat from male kin or family friends.
  • Feminist campaigning brought new attention to child physical and sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s, amongst social workers, police and the medical profession. However, there was little public support for the interventions of social workers against ‘family abuse’, particularly after the Cleveland scandal of 1987-8.  Clear guidelines for best practice were not established until the 1990s.
  • Notions of ‘problem families’ and ‘immoral girls’ have been updated, but still persistently influence the responses of child welfare and protection professionals today, as recent scandals in Oxford and Rotherham show.  There is still some way to go to ensure implementation and monitoring of best practice at the frontline of child protection.


Across the twentieth century, the care of children who suffered or were at risk of sexual abuse has clearly been found wanting. Recent investigations such as the Northern Irish Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry and the Savile Inquiry have found failures of accountability and joined up thinking. A lack of urgency and clarity in understanding and responding to child sexual abuse resulted in profound and systematic failures to protect children. More chillingly, the abuse of children within institutions meant to safeguard their welfare demonstrates the inadequacy of some welfare institutions. This policy paper provides an overview of how this was possible, by tracing practices and ideas about child protection across the twentieth century.

Moral welfare and rescue

The period before 1948 saw the majority of work with vulnerable children undertaken by ‘moral’ or family welfare workers. These were mostly voluntary workers based within groups such as the Church of England’s Moral Welfare Associations.  Their remit also included supporting ‘friendless girls’, unmarried mothers and babies, intervening to prevent prostitution, and helping treat and prevent the spread of venereal disease. Boys were not widely perceived as sexually vulnerable, and barely featured in discussions of child assault and prostitution. Some moral welfare workers received training, but many were unpaid and untrained. Their professional status was uncertain, and they had few means of highlighting the existence of abuse of children as a significant issue for policymakers and other welfare workers such as police and teachers.

Moral welfare workers adopted the personal, common-sense approach of individual ‘case work’. This was integrated with older methods of ‘rescue’ associated with the late nineteenth century social purity movement which attempted to implement a Christian moral order.  Welfare workers were likely to stress maternal incompetence and ‘mental deficiency’ (of mother, abuser and victim) in explaining the neglect or abuse of children in the decades before the Second World War.  Abusers were termed ‘deranged’ or ‘unbalanced’; increasingly in the interwar period, sex offenders were argued to be in need of medical treatment rather than punishment. Men who had served in the First World War often used their war experiences as the basis for their defence when accused of sexual assault.  A 1934 pamphlet from the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, Sexual Offences Against Young Children: A Call To Action argued: ‘they are invalids rather than criminals’. Children who were abused were often depicted as ‘slow’ or ‘feebleminded’, as well as sexually precocious.

Welfare work before the Second World War tended to categorise vulnerable children according to their perceived degree of sexual knowledge and thus culpability for eliciting abuse.  Many of the victims were very young; a study produced in 1958 by a woman Police Surgeon noted that of the nearly 2000 cases she examined between 1927 and 1954, half the victims were under 7 years.  Nonetheless, victims were not always portrayed as virtuous or innocent, particularly if they were from impoverished backgrounds. A Southwark home for girls who had been sexually abused acknowledged the ‘tragic experience’ of its residents, but pejoratively characterised them as ‘hopelessly ignorant’, ‘dirty in person and habits’, and suffering ‘over-wrought nerves.’ Particularly in older age groups (13-16 years), children were sometimes presented as in need of punishment and moral transformation. Many were sent to remand homes, approved schools or Church-run children’s homes, where their sexual knowingness disqualified them from sympathetic treatment. One investigation into a remand home in 1945, for example, found children to be categorised into ‘clean minded’ and ‘foul minded’. There was no recognition that institutional environments might also be sites of sexual abuse.

Alongside moral welfare workers, child sexual abuse might come to the attention of psychiatric social workers, ‘children’s workers’ employed by local authorities, General Practitioners, teachers and youth workers.  This range of different subfields and agencies made it hard to follow up cases and establish best practice. The Adkins Departmental Committee into Sexual Offences Against Young People in 1925 noted that care was ‘spasmodic and uncoordinated’.  Its sensible suggestions to improve the monitoring of sexual offences against children, render criminal justice procedures less traumatising for children and encourage cooperation between police and social workers, were not a government priority. A Joint Committee on Sexual Offences was formed in 1932, with membership from 48 voluntary organisations, in order to press for enactment of the 1925 Report’s recommendations.  But it was disbanded without any success. A 1945 memorandum by the National Council of Women noted a distinct lack of urgency amongst magistrates and Home Office officials to take action on how child sexual assaults were treated by the courts; as Adrian Bingham has shown, the press and public opinion did not insist on reform, and thus provided no impetus for change.


During the mass evacuation of children from British cities during the Second World War, there was widespread discussion of problems of ‘flighty’ girls and the growth in prostitution, which served to deflected attention from the very high vulnerability of evacuated children to sexual abuse.  In addition, there were few trained workers available to oversee evacuation, which was mostly led by schoolteachers.  Only six psychiatric social workers, for example, were available during the removal from British cities of 827,000 school age children.  Moral welfare workers were largely diverted into other more pressing kinds of war work.

Where abuse was reported by evacuees, the action taken was pragmatic, and inflected by class.  A moral welfare report described a girl who was evacuated with her school: ‘In the summer of 1940 she told an older girl that the householder on whom she was billeted had assaulted her; this girl told a school teacher and so the matter came to light and enquiries were made.  The man concerned indignantly denied having committed any act of indecency.’ On investigation, the teacher found the girl to have ‘suffered from slight nervous trouble.’ Due to this, it was considered that ‘her word not wholly reliable, and for this reason the police did not bring a charge against the man.’ A Council for Moral Welfare worker, however, visited the household and perhaps because she knew that the girl had ‘good parents and a comfortable home,’ was convinced of the truth of the allegation. She transferred the evacuee to another district. Clearly, the testimony of children from ‘respectable’ homes was more credible and likely to be heard than those from ‘rough’ or disordered backgrounds. There was no record of any action taken against the man accused.  It was frequently stated that court appearances would intensify the trauma of sexual abuse, and many welfare workers preferred to simply remove children from abusive situations. 

Sexual abuse, social work and the welfare state

After the Second World War, changes in social work drew the care and protection of vulnerable children away from the voluntary sector. The 1946 Curtis Review into the death through neglect of fostered child Denis O’Neill described a care system that was ad hoc and inattentive to the potential for abuse and neglect.  In recruiting foster mothers, Curtis wrote, ‘in no case did we find that any inquiry even in the most general or discreet terms had been addressed to the police about the applicant’s record.’ Foster fathers were rarely interviewed, as it was assumed ‘it’s the woman that matters.’ Most cared-for children did not maintain contact with relatives, and thus had few trusted adults they could talk to. Institutions often routinely placed children in workplaces where their isolation and low status risked further abuse, such as domestic service or the merchant marine. Record keeping was scanty, and siblings often separated. To remedy this, the 1948 Children’s Act created mandatory Children’s Committees and Children’s Officers within local government. 

The resulting Children’s Departments led to more coordinated policies in relation to the care of children, as well as a shift to preventive rather than rescue work. Institutionalisation was to become a last resort. New influences in social work came from psychodynamic methods, widely developed in the United States, which promoted attention to the quality of family relationships.  This enabled a shift in practice; family welfare workers had been very focused on the mother-child relationship, with particular attention to maternal inadequacies in the first half of the twentieth century. After World War Two, they tended to look more holistically at the family, set within an overarching concern with promoting marital harmony. A commitment to keeping family members at home replaced earlier methods of removal to institutional care.  Dislike of the harsh institutional care of the Poor Law, theories of the damage caused by removal of children from maternal care, and the desire to limit costs meant that shoring up ‘problem’ families became a priority. 

This meant that abuse, whether physical, sexual or emotional, was less likely to lead to removal of a child.  Much postwar commentary on child sexual abuse downplayed the harm that resulted. A 1957 review of child sexual assault in the magazine Moral Welfare by forensic psychiatrist T C N Gibbens, for example, noted that ‘in many cases there was de facto consent to the offence; some [children] did not realise the nature of the act, and others were indifferent.’ He proposed that many such crimes were better treated as ‘indecent conduct’, rather than ‘indecent assault’.  This would provide a less punitive way to deal with ‘the offender whose only impulse is to lift the skirts of a little girl and peep…’.  This tendency to trivialise sexual assaults on children was supported by the habit of police to press charges for lesser offences such as common assault or indecent assault rather than rape. This was intended to increase the chance of conviction, and allow for cases to be tried by magistrates rather than in a higher court. But it also had the effect of downplaying the gravity of the assaults on children.

Though some frontline welfare workers did listen to children and act on their allegations, psychological theories of child sexual abuse were sceptical. A 1963 study, Child Victims of Sex Offences, asserted children’s tendency to lie about abuse: ‘the most elaborate and circumstantial accusations are sometimes made without any basis in fact.’  This same study also argued that ‘the behaviour of parents is the main source of difficulty’ – in particular, the mother’s feelings of jealousy and envy towards her daughter. The victims of sex offences, the authors concluded, ‘frequently select themselves through certain psychological characteristics.’ Blame was thus deflected from abusers.

Child sexual abuse had long been associated with poverty and overcrowding in slum housing. The postwar years of full employment created a sense of Britain as an affluent society. The social problems that emerged were perceived to be less about incest and assault, and more about ‘good time girls’.  There was little recognition that child sexual abuse might be found in middle-class households; its cross-class nature was belatedly acknowledged only in the 1980s.   In the 50s and 60s, concern was instead about promiscuity and high levels of venereal disease amongst sexually active young women, who were blamed for their ‘lack of hygiene’ even if they were under the age of 16.  There seemed astonishingly little interest in framing girls as victims of sexual assault, even where surveys showed pregnancies amongst 11 and 12 year old girls. Instead, the talk was of delinquents and pre-delinquents. Where child abuse was named in the postwar decades, it was sometimes also distanced from ‘indigenous’ populations and blamed on parents from overseas. 


Despite the new oversight of Children’s Departments, the social work profession remained extremely fragmented. The promotion of new methods or issues of concern was highly uneven.  Psychodynamic approaches influenced psychoanalytic theorists such as Freud and Winnicott, for example, were strongly developed in Child Guidance Clinics, though numbers of clinics and workers remained low.  In other areas, older traditions of commonsense or judgementalism were integrated with psychology, to rework ‘casework’. The result was a patchwork of practice. 

Strenuous efforts were made to professionalise social work in the 1960s and 1970s, by discouraging specialisms, and expanding the training available.  The desire for generic social work was intended to dispel class prejudices and paternalism by creating a universal approach that could meet the needs of all, rather than simply addressing so-called ‘problem families’.  However, it also meant that smaller groups of specialists - such as the Children’s Moral Welfare Workers Association - became subsumed into the non-specialist British Association of Social Workers.  All studies of child sex offending stressed the need for special training and expertise; the British Medical Journal [BMJ], for example, called in 1963 for ‘a corps of highly trained women officers’ to ‘take statements from child victims and advise the child and its parents during and after court proceedings.’  Yet the trend within the social work profession was to more universally applicable ways of working.  Sensitivity to sexual abuse and support for its victims may have been compromised as a result; sexual abuse was simply not visible in social work training or practice during the 1960s and 1970s. 

In another round of reorganisation, Social Services Departments were created in Scotland from 1968 and in England and Wales from 1971, absorbing the previous Children’s Departments.  Older methods of casework were abandoned as caseloads rose. A more intrusive managerial culture and higher numbers of referrals meant that many social workers of the 1970s and 80s became demoralised, seeing their role as crisis intervention rather than sustained work with individual families. The upheaval and tensions of this process may have exacerbated the lack of communication and information sharing that made it hard be alert to the problem of child sexual abuse. A survey of postwar social work in 1978 by social work investigator Eileen Younghusband had concluded that child welfare work sometimes regressed or stood still because ‘specialist skills were diluted and scarce resources allocated to other parts of the social services.’  In such an atmosphere, Younghusband concluded, child protection visits were often ‘at the bottom of the list’ for ‘overburdened Child Care Officers’. 

‘Battered children’

Younghusband’s 1978 survey was undertaken when child sexual abuse was not a prominent concern. Instead, it was physical abuse of children that received attention. ‘Battered children’ or ‘non-accidental injury’ had been identified by paediatricians from the 1950s. It became a major policy issue of the 1960s and 70s, though more associated with the actions of mothers than fathers or other male relatives. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children surveyed 78 ‘battered children’ in 1969, and later set up the National Advisory Centre for the Battered Child. The Home Office recommended in 1972 that ‘area review committees’ be established to allow for interagency working. Nonetheless, Younghusband noted that ‘many social workers found it difficult to accept the reality of child battering and reacted with anxiety or withdrawal, which limited their ability to help.’ 

Sexual abuse was an even more sensitive issue, and was also treated with disbelief or resistance. Feminist consciousness raising groups had begun to give adults the opportunity to tell of childhood sexual abuse.  Feminist campaigners presented child abuse as a subset of wider patterns of male violence towards women and children; Incest Survivors’ groups and Rape Crisis shelters demanded more sensitive treatment and aftercare for survivors of abuse. A British Medical Journal article charted the sharp rise of referrals for child sexual abuse in 1980s Leeds [Fig. 1], but still acknowledged that different welfare services had ‘inconsistent response[s] to sexual abuse, as few agencies have uniform procedures of management and coordination between agencies is poor.’

Fig. 1: Child sexual abuse referrals to paediatricians in Leeds [N J Wild, British Medical Journal, 1986]

Despite the exponential increase in referrals, guidance for social workers was not in place. In 1988, two Islington social workers noted ‘we were unprepared for the sudden emergence of so many sexual abuse cases… there [was] no policy on how to deal with them.’ The 1980s saw greater recognition of the occurrence of long standing abuse of children within families, and awareness of the over-representation of children in care amongst abuse referrals. The telephone helpline ChildLine, launched in 1986, promoted further awareness of children’s vulnerability. There also began to be talk of what were termed ‘child sex rings’, and wider discussion of the organised sexual exploitation of children. 

But when, in 1987, social workers and paediatricians in Cleveland removed over 100 children from families suspected of sexual abuse, there was little public support for their actions. Cleveland provoked much media criticism of ‘overzealous’ and intrusive social workers and paediatricians. There was particular concern over the use of a clinical diagnostic test, Reflex Anal Dilation [RAD], despite this being recommended as a standard diagnostic. Widespread press and parliamentary pressure led to the return to their families of most of the children, despite in some cases evidence beyond the contentious RAD test that they had been abused. The Butler-Sloss inquiry in 1988 found procedural failings in Cleveland in using ‘Place of Safety Orders’ to remove children from parents, as well as failures of interagency cooperation and management oversight.  This episode resulted in a loss of confidence in interventions into family abuse by social workers. The 1989 Children Act clarified the grounds for intervention, making it compulsory where children faced ‘serious harm’. Sexual abuse, however, remained hard to diagnose, and a source of considerable disquiet to welfare workers and the general public.


Across the twentieth century, most cases of child sexual abuse did not come to the attention of authorities. When they did, the response from welfare workers was often inadequate. By removing children from contact with trusted adults, ‘rescue’ may have made children less able to disclose, or vulnerable to further abuse in institutional care. There was little joined up thinking and few agreed procedures across the different branches of social work, the police and the medical profession. Concerns over confidentiality continued to prevent effective multi-agency working. It was widely believed that child sexual abuse was due to psychological defects in men, and exacerbated by poor parenting. The question of ‘subnormality’ was also a persistent concern in discussions of child sexual abuse across the period; as late as 1986, the BMJ was still blaming victims for being ‘slow on the uptake’. Evidence from 1918-1990 suggests that child sexual abuse was also persistently viewed as correlated with unemployment and poverty – and thus to be a problem found amongst the socially marginalised. Although research in the 1980s had made its cross-class prevalence clearer, this was not implemented in frontline social work practice, which continued to associate sexual abuse with poor living conditions.  

Sexual abuse and exploitation are now better recognised as dangers to children, and the criminal justice system is better calibrated to identify and convict abusers. However, high caseloads and poor integration of welfare, health and social services still have the potential to result in failures of child safeguarding. It is still likely that welfare professionals remain unaware of significant numbers of abused children. While talk of ‘immoral’ girls or ‘problem families’ is no longer part of social work practice, the recent scandals over sexual exploitation of children in Rotherham, Derby, Oxford and elsewhere saw children stigmatised by social workers and police as ‘out of control’, ‘streetwise’ and akin to prostitutes. Traditions of moral judgement persist in welfare practice, and limit the effectiveness and urgency of responses to child sexual abuse and exploitation. There are still continuities between the practices and norms evident in ‘historic’ child sexual abuse cases and those of today’s abuse scandals.

Further Reading

Pat Starkey (2000) ‘The feckless mother: women, poverty and social workers’, Women’s History Review 9:3.

Jane Lewis (1995) The Voluntary Sector, the State and Social Work in Britain (Edward Elgar).

Nesta H Wells, (1958) ‘Sexual offences as seen by a woman police surgeon’, British Medical Journal, Dec 6.

Joyce Prince and TCN Gibbens, (1963) Child Victims of Sex Offences (Institute for the Study and Treatment of Delinquency)

Eileen Younghusband, (1978) Social Work in Britain, 1950-1975: a follow-up study (George, Allen & Unwin).

Margaret Boushel and Sara Noakes, (1988) ‘Islington Social Services: Developing a Policy on Child Sexual Abuse’, Feminist Review 28, Jan. 


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