The Best Books in Child Welfare

(Originally published December 2012)

Outstanding books on child welfare subjects are rare, so rare that in some years it would be difficult to name a single new book likely to be read outside a School of Social Work a decade after publication. Books in which research findings, or administrative data, are featured are likely to be quickly dated; and the theoretical or policy perspectives of one generation are rarely of anything but historical interest to the generations that follow, especially in child welfare in the U.S. where the reforms of one generation are often viewed as ethically appalling or abysmal failures by scholars and advocates in the generations that follow.


Occasionally, however, books are published whose theoretical perspectives and analyses of vulnerable populations are of lasting interest, or whose accounts of important historical developments and events are unsurpassed by new scholarship, or whose imaginative grasp of the lives of children have a power and depth that does not get old. During recent years, the best example of a theoretical perspective that has become more important in child welfare with each passing year is trauma informed practice because, at long last, the understanding of trauma and its effects on children’s development is being increasingly utilized by public agencies to guide child welfare policy and practice.


It is worth pondering why outstanding books about child protection policy and practice are so rare. One possible reason is that most scholarly books about child abuse and neglect fail the first test of an outstanding book, i.e., describing a world of child protection in which four fifths of child victims are neglected by poor (often severely poor) parents afflicted by substance abuse and mental health problems and often family violence as well, as it is. Another reason is that first- hand accounts of child protection by experienced practitioners are rare; and so the organizational context in which CPS caseworkers operate is rarely described. It is also true that in some cases the perspectives of important books of past decades, for example Leroy Pelton’s The social context of child abuse and neglect (1981) have become commonplace, though not without debates among scholars and practitioners that have been largely forgotten.       


Books that cogently describe the perspectives and social context of past generations of advocates and policymakers are of great value because, absent this understanding, the efforts of past generations to protect vulnerable children and youth are likely to be viewed with an ethical condescension that hides the difficulties of child welfare reform and is an obstacle to thoughtful reflection. It is important to understand that past generations of reformers saw the world quite differently from ourselves, and had fundamentally different conceptions of the needs of vulnerable children and families; and that future generations are likely to view current policies and practices in a highly critical and bemused way (“What could they have been thinking?”)


Similarly, there is no substitute for novels, autobiographies or memoirs that reveal the inner lives of children; outstanding novels and memoirs about the lives of children are as rare as outstanding books about social policy.  Most adults have lost the memory of how it feels to be a child; recovering the lived experience of children as an adult is a rare achievement, and when it occurs should be celebrated, especially when the awareness and emotional life of abused children is illuminated.


It (perhaps) goes without saying that any list of ‘best’ books reflects personal tastes, and that tastes vary. The books I list below have shaped my thinking about child welfare, in part because of their real merits. Nevertheless, others with different experiences and perspectives will have different lists of best books with as much to recommend them as the list below.


The Dozen Best Books on Child Welfare Subjects


1. Trauma and Recovery (1993) by Judith Herman.   

There is no set of superlatives which would do justice to one of the few scholarly books I would describe as inspired. This is a book that combines intellectual brilliance and depth with moral passion and astute practice guidelines for assisting trauma victims with the recovery process. I question whether the intellectual riches of Trauma and Recovery can be exhausted even by multiple readings; at least I’ve never come close.


2.  A Child’s Journey Through Placement (1991) by Vera Fahlberg  

I have the impression that experienced practitioners have forgotten about Fahlberg’s book, and that caseworkers and supervisors who began working in child welfare in recent years may never have heard about arguably the best practice guide for professionals who facilitate children’s moves from home to home. Fahlberg’s book is solidly grounded in attachment theory, and contains a wealth of case scenarios to illustrate clearly articulated practice principles. Fahlberg is especially astute about the ways that unexpressed grief undermines relationships between children and foster parents or adoptive parents.


3. The Future of Child Protection (1998) by Jane Waldfogel

This is one of the few books on child welfare policy whose practice recommendations have largely come to pass during recent years as differential response systems have been implemented by numerous states and/ or counties around the country. Waldfogel’s analysis of child welfare caseloads in Boston, and her comparisons of the characteristics of families served by a modern child welfare agency in the last decade of the twentieth century with child welfare cases in other English speaking countries, and in the early years of the twentieth century is an outstanding scholarly analysis that sets the stage for her prophetic policy recommendations.          


4. Call It Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth

Roth’s astonishing first novel is written from the perspective of a young immigrant child in New York City, a child emotionally abused by his suspicious and bitter father. Roth powerfully communicates this boy’s fear of his father and the world around him, his shame and desperate search for ways of coping with danger, and his developing beliefs about the world. One of Roth’s themes is the extent to which abused children threatened by malign forces in their families or neighborhoods will search for consciousness altering ways of controlling  the world around them and their responses to that world.


5. The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog (2006) by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz

This is a book of fascinating stories about traumatized children, including the story of a young child raised for years in a dog cage, used to educate readers about the effects of trauma on children, and what is required to restore normal development in the aftermath of trauma. Perry is a born educator, and his stories – and those of his co – author – have a solid theoretical underpinning that repays careful study. Perry’s interest in the traumatic effects of severe neglect in early childhood makes him an important trauma theorist for child welfare professionals.


6. Take Me Home: Protecting America’s Vulnerable Children and Families (2009) by Jill Berrick

Jill Berrick’s encyclopedic knowledge of child welfare research on out- of- home care combined with her compelling stories of parents whose children were removed from their custody due mainly to substance abuse and neglect, and who (in some cases) after years eventually succeeded at reunification efforts makes for a powerful and courageous book. Berrick’s stories of parents’ struggles with both the kinship families caring for their children and assigned caseworkers who are mostly missing in action represent a challenge to any and all policy frameworks. Take Me Home also includes one of the best recent analyses of foster care and foster care outcomes by a scholar willing to challenge dominant perspectives in child welfare.


7. The Making of the Issue of Child Abuse (1984) by Barbara Nelson

Nelson’s book continues to be the most incisive analysis of the development of state and federal laws that created the modern child protection system. In Nelson’s account, the passage of federal CAPTA legislation depended on a denial of the (by now) well established relationship between poverty and child maltreatment. State reporting laws were passed in all fifty states within a few years in the 1960s primarily in response to pediatricians’ rediscovery of battered child syndrome.  Nelson has written an eye opening account of how social policy is developed; and her history helps to explain why this country’s child welfare systems which were created to deal with serious physical abuse cases continue to have difficulty in effectively serving neglecting families.


8. The Glass Castle (2005) by Jeanette Walls

Walls’ memoir of a childhood marked by severe poverty, neglect and occasional violence is alternately sad, funny and painful. Walls’ descriptions of her parents goes far beyond stereotypical accounts of child maltreatment, and serves as a reminder that even in troubled families, there are likely to be experiences of nurture and family adventures that excite the imaginations of children and lead to resilient outcomes.


9. Signs of Safety (1999) by Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards

This is one of the few outstanding books in child protection written for practitioners. Turnell and Edwards are concerned with how CPS caseworkers can go about forming strong partnerships with parents; and these authors make a compelling argument that the safety of children depends on parents’ active engagement in safety planning and implementation of safety plans. Turnell and Edwards have a wealth of useful practical advice for assessing and responding to child maltreatment based on principles from solution based brief therapies.


10. Nurturing Adoptions (2007) by Deborah Gray

This book, written primarily for foster parents and adoptive parents, is about how traumatized and/ or severely neglected children recover from these devastating experiences through nurturing relationships with caregivers. There is more excellent practical advice in this book for caregivers than in any other book I’ve read in recent years. In addition, Gray has an extraordinary in- depth understanding of the effects of early neglect on the mental/ emotional development of children based on her clinical experience. This is another book that repays careful reading and frequent re-readings. Every foster parent and adoptive parent should read Nurturing Adoptions. 


11. Orphan trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and The Children He Saved and Failed (2001) by Stephen O’Connor

O’Connor’s history of the development of foster care in Charles Loring Brace’s vision of immigrant children removed from corrupting urban environments and placed with farm families hundreds or thousands of miles from home is a cautionary story for child welfare advocates and practitioners. O’Connor’s book is also a lively social history of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century thinking about the needs of destitute children. One of O’Connor’s themes is that any solution to the problems of youth growing up in destitute families that would appeal to educated and politically active persons in the nineteenth century had to take child labor seriously. When social attitudes regarding child labor changed in the early twentieth century  the orphan train movement came to an end, according to O‘Connor.     


12. Promoting Resilience in Child Welfare (2006) edited by Robert Flynn, Peter Dudding and James Barber

This book contains high caliber scholarship on resilience, foster care, youth permanency and tribal empowerment mostly by Canadian, Irish, English and Australian scholars. Chapters by Robbie Gilligan (youth permanency), Christopher LaLonde (tribal empowerment), James Barber and Paul Delfabbro (placement stability and child well- being) are among the best scholarly writing on these subjects published in the past decade.  


There are also a number of outstanding books which are not about children or child welfare but which have important applications in child welfare. The books include The Noonday Demon (2001), Andrew Solomon’s great book about depression, Gary Klein’s Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (1998) about naturalistic studies of decision making,  Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (2011), a fascinating scientific account of bias’, Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma And The Perils Of Homecoming (2002), a description of positive leadership in the military which could inform leadership discussions in child welfare.  David  Finkelhor’s Childhood Victimization (2008) , which describes  poly-victims of multiple forms of victimization including sibling abuse and bullying, is an important and praiseworthy book.


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