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  • In Retrospect:Anthony M. Platt’s The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency
  • Miroslava Chávez-García (bio)

Nearly forty years have lapsed since the publication of Anthony M. Platt's The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency (1969; 1977), a groundbreaking study critical of social reformers and the juvenile court of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In that time, the study of juvenile justice has evolved into a rich and diverse as well as fragmented and specialized area of research. Academics, activists, and popular writers as well as politicians, public policy advocates, and former inmates have all attempted to capture the historical and contemporary ideologies and practices of a system that many critiqued and continue to critique as ineffective. Works focusing on the court's early history reveal that the motivations, interests, and players involved in its establishment varied in complex and subtle ways across time and place. Yet much of the literature reflects the belief that the juvenile court in particular played a central role in sustaining a network of child saving institutions that we know of today as the juvenile justice system. How effectively the court championed the interests of children and adolescents, as it purported to do, has been debated quite vigorously. Arguably, no work has done more to provoke sustained discussion over the nature of the juvenile court and those who worked so diligently for its formation as has Platt's The Child Savers. Platt's biting critique elicited—and continues to elicit—vocal opposition, on one end, and strong support, on the other, of his interpretation. As this essay will demonstrate, Platt's study shaped and continues to shape how we think and write about the juvenile court, social reformers, and delinquent youths.1

This essay examines the significance of Anthony Platt's classic study, The Child Savers, on the development of the field of juvenile justice in history and analyzes how that work has impacted many of the central arguments historians as well as social scientists grapple with today. It begins by briefly noting the book's successes and then examines the historical contexts—the author's personal and professional as well as the social, cultural, political, and intellectual influences—that shaped the study so deeply. Next, it explores how scholars responded to The Child Savers and shows how, in the process of critiquing the text's arguments, theoretical approach, and methodology, they produced a rich body of literature. Finally, the essay ends by highlighting the [End Page 464] latest research and by calling attention to areas that are still sorely lacking. As the discussion will demonstrate, despite great strides in the study of juvenile justice, histories interrogating the role of race and ethnicity in the criminalization of youth are still wanting.

Situating The Child Savers

To most scholars, Anthony Platt's The Child Savers has an enviable record. Published in 1969 and expanded and reissued in 1977, the book has sold well over 10,000 copies and has been translated and sold in Italy, Japan, Mexico, and greater Latin America. For many years, the paperback edition was used in college courses across the United States. Today, it is still in print and continues to sell respectably well, according to the University of Chicago Press. In 2005, Steven L. Schlossman called it a "seminal study of the nation's first juvenile court in Chicago" and current scholarship indicates that its influence persists in juvenile and criminal justice as well as social welfare.2 A search conducted on the scholarly electronic search engine Web of Knowledge supports that statement, demonstrating that the study has been cited in hundreds of publications spanning the fields of history, criminology, sociology, law, and ethnic studies. Nearly forty years later, all of the notoriety has surprised even Platt, who remarked in a recent interview that the attention not only enabled him to land a prestigious post at UC Berkeley but also brought him personal satisfaction. "I liked the celebrity aspects of it, going around and talking and debating people, it was an interesting part of my career," he said.3

Achieving such notoriety was furthest from Platt's thoughts when he decided to leave his native...


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