Though Dave Pelzer's story is horrifying, it is certainly not unique. Cases of children suffering at the hands of abusive caretakers are all too common, but it took a long time for children's rights and protection to gain visibility in U.S. policy. The following is a brief overview of the way in which child protection has evolved in the United States.
In 1975, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was created. It was the first organization devoted entirely to child protection; before its inception, many children were without protection of any sort. Crimes against children were punished through court prosecution, but there existed no formalized protection agencies.
The NYSPCC was created in the aftermath of the rescue of nine-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson from her abusive and neglectful life in a New York City tenement. A religious missionary Etta Wheeler discovered her situation, and managed to use the law to get her out. Afterwards, she talked to animal protection activist Henry Bergh about the lack of a nongovernmental organization for the protection of children. They thus established the NYSPCC, and by 1922, news of this organization had spread so rapidly that 300 child protection agencies existed across America.
The world's first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899, and all states except three had them by 1919. There was a conspicuous lack of governmental organizations to protect children, however, until after the Great Depression, when the government became more involved in social welfare. The Social Security Act created Aid to Dependent Children, along with provisions to promote child welfare.
1962 brought on the modern era of child protection, as the medical profession began to take interest in preventing child abuse. The media followed behind, with national media covering child abuse cases where they had not before. Congress added new amendments to the Social Security Act in 1962 to institute Child Protection Services; and foster care, considered a huge advancement in child welfare, became the more accepted practice over orphanages. In 1974, Congress issued the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act, and a new agency, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, was created.