From property to people, a history of child abuse and neglect | First in a series

April was first proclaimed National Child Abuse Prevention Month in 1983 by President Reagan and continues in an effort to protect children from abuse and promote healthy families.

The sad, but true, story of 9-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson was discovered in 1873 that brought into existence an extensive child-saving awareness.  Etta Wheeler, a missionary to the poor, heard of a child, believed to be 5 or 6 years old, who lived in one of New York City’s worst tenement houses, Hell’s Kitchen. She was cruelly whipped and frequently left alone all day, all windows darkened, locked in an inner room.

Mrs. Wheeler went to the apartment next to where the little girl lived. The woman she visited was sickly and lay many hours hearing the cries of this child. Convinced of the abuse, Mrs. Wheeler approached the child’s apartment door.

“I began telling her of her sick and lonely neighbor and talked on until, unconsciously, she had opened the door so that I could step in.” Mrs. Wheeler continued, “This I did and, being an unbidden guest, made a very brief call. I was there only long enough to see the child and gain my own impression of her condition. While still talking with the woman, I saw a pale, thin child, barefoot, in a thin, scanty dress so tattered that I could see she wore but one garment besides.”

Not wanting to arouse suspicion causing the man and woman to leave with the child, Mrs. Wheeler contemplated how to rescue the little girl. She sought help from local police, who refused to investigate. Child-helping charities lacked authority to intervene. Weeks went by.

Henry Bergh Courtesy photo
Henry Bergh
Courtesy photo

Mrs. Wheeler’s story continued, “I had more than once been tempted to apply to the “Society for  the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” but had lacked courage to do what seemed absurd. However, when on the following Tuesday a niece said, ‘You are so troubled over that abused child, why not go to Mr. Bergh? She is a little animal, surely.’

“Within an hour I was at the society’s rooms. Mr. Bergh was in his office and listened to my recital most courteously but with a slight air of amusement that such an appeal should be made there. In the end he said, ‘The case interests me much, but very definite testimony is needed to warrant interference between a child and those claiming guardianship. Will you not send me a written statement that, at my leisure, I may judge the weight of the evidence and may also have time to consider if this society should interfere? I promise to consider the case carefully.’”

Mr. Bergh sent a man posing as a census taker who also discovered the plight of the pitiful child.

“The next morning, Mr. Bergh called upon me to ask if I would go to the Court House, the child having been already sent for. He expressed pleasure that he need not ask me to go to the police court, Judge Lawrence of the Supreme Court having kindly taken the case. After we had waited a short time in the Judge’s Court, two officers came in, one of whom had the little girl in his arms. She was wrapped in a carriage blanket and was without other clothing than the two ragged garments I had seen her in months before. Her body was bruised, her face disfigured, and the woman, as if to make testimony sure against herself, had the day before, struck the child with a pair of shears, cutting a gash through the left eyebrow and down the cheek, fortunately escaping the eye.”

Mary Ellen’s story, originally published by the American Humane Association related, “The testimony of fellow tenants, and the damaging witness of the woman against herself under cross-examination, secured her conviction, and she was sentenced to the penitentiary for a year.

“When leaving the Court House I tried to thank Mr. Bergh for the rescue of the child, and asked if there could not now be a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which should do for abused children what was being so well done for animals? He took my hand and said very emphatically, ‘There shall be one.’ Today all the world knows how well that promise was kept. The time has come for a forward movement in the welfare of children and little Mary Ellen’s hand had struck the hour.”

Working together with his attorney Elbridge Gerry, Henry Bergh created a nongovernmental charitable society devoted to child protection, giving birth to the first child protection services, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in 1875.

Many practices that were once accepted would be considered abusive today. Aristotle condoned treating children as property with no rights. Harsh physical discipline was supported in the 13th century. One law from the Middle Ages stated, “If one beats a child until it bleeds then it will remember; but if one beats it to death, the law applies.” Infanticide, the willful killing of a child, the weak or deformed infants or in some cultures female children, has been accepted.

The early marriage of children has been viewed acceptable in various cultures. Pearl S. Buck writes in “The Good Earth” about a merchant who said, “My daughter is 13 years old and no longer a child and she is fit for marriage.”

Deeply embedded in industrialized societies, including the United States, were anti-child practices such as child slavery, orphan trains and child labor in mines and factories.

The first juvenile court, a nongovernmental entity, was established in Chicago in 1899. They dealt primarily with delinquent children, but from the beginning had the authority to intervene in cases of abuse and neglect.

Judge David Soukup, of Juvenile Court, King County, Seattle, Wash., was dissatisfied with same case plans and recommendations for each child. He believed every child’s situation was unique to that child and should be viewed on a more individualized basis. In an effort to produce better outcomes for children, Judge Soukup was instrumental in creating a program of community volunteers that would support and represent children’s needs. The Volunteer Guardian ad Litem Program began in King County in 1977.

The Children’s Bureau was an early supporter of State Children’s Trust Funds. Kansas was the first state to pass such legislation in the spring of 1980, requiring revenues from surcharges placed on marriage licenses to be used to support child abuse prevention. By 1984, the number of states with Trust Funds was up to 15. That year, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention Federal Challenge Grants Act (title IV of P.L. 98-473) to encourage more states to follow suit. By 1989, all but three states had passed Children’s Trust Fund legislation.

Within the year the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect awarded nine grants to develop and implement community-based prevention strategies, develop a coordinated multidisciplinary training program for professionals and community leaders, implement a public awareness campaign and implement crisis intervention programs.

By 1996 a Federal Interagency Work Group on Child Abuse and Neglect was established that included representatives of more than 40 federal agencies to meet quarterly with the Office on Child Abuse and Neglect’s leadership.

It has taken many years since the first federal child protection legislation was signed by President Nixon in January of 1974 for the U.S. to become aware of the need of abused and neglected children. It is understood that prevention is the best defense for our children. Federal agencies are now working with professionals, volunteer organizations and communities as a whole to provide safety for children so that they might have the opportunity to grow up free from abuse or neglect.

Next: Facts concerning child abuse and neglect and how to recognize it.

by Teressa Ennis