The maltreatment, misuse, and neglect of children are recognized as a serious social problem in the United States. Although children have been the subject of various types of maltreatment in different historical periods, concern for maltreated children now prompts action from private citizens and the government. As Finkelhor notes, a specific definition of this problem has been recognized, adopted, promoted, and maintained by the federal bureaucracy, state legislatures, and Congress. The definition of child abuse that has been the focus of social concern and public services takes a medical-legal approach to the maltreatment of children by their parents or primary caretakers--that is, maltreatment of children within their families. This conceptualization of child maltreatment in Oklahoma and in U.S. social policy in general, starts from the individual and family level, rather than a structural, institutional, or societal approach to the problem (Finkelhor, Hotling, Lewis & Smith, pp. 20). Social conditions including poverty and a lack of housing and child care have not been the focus of government child welfare services. The current conception of child abuse and neglect in the Oklahoma has its roots in the recognition of cases of parent's physical cruelty to children at the turn of the century. At this time the child had become emotionally "priceless" in American culture, and childhood was seen as "protected state. Against this backdrop, social workers and volunteers from humane societies were dealing with situations of cruelty to children. The conception of maltreatment focused on physical abuse of the child, and by the 1930s the expressions "physical abuse of children" and "cruelty to children" were used interchangably (Hutchinson, Dattalo & Rodwell, pp. 302). It was not until the 1960s, however, that the problem attracted widespread public concern and a national response to the problem was initiated.
Child abuse in the 1960s was seen as a problem of physical battering and the deliberate intention to harm the child, mainly by parents. Since that time the meaning of the term child abuse has expanded (Lindsey, pp. 15) to include not only physical harm of the child, but also sexual or emotional maltreatment by parents or caretakers. Abuse does not have to be deliberate infliction, but can also take the form of omission to act resulting in neglect of the child's needs. Depending on what the child's needs are seen to be, the definition of child neglect can be very broad.
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In severe cases, there is general community and professional consensus in the United States as to what constitutes abuse or neglect of a child. For example, there is agreement that a child with fractured bones from repeated beatings is "abused," while a child who is not given the minimum amount of food, clothing, or attention necessary for survival (such as a young child left unfed in a room) is "neglected." Between these extreme cases, however, there is a wide range of situations on which there is often disagreement about what constitutes maltreatment. ...