Child Abuse Background and History

Child abuse and neglect is any form of cruelty inflicted on a child. The act is usually committed by a parent, a caretaker, or another person meant to provide child care. 

This cruelty comes in various forms, such as the following:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Child Neglect

The abuse can affect the child's mental health and well-being. At its worst, abuse or neglect could result in physical injury or death.

Prevention efforts against child abuse have grown over the last 50 years. People became more aware that child abuse is a severe social and health problem. As a result, these efforts have gone from awareness to intervention.

This article discusses the background of child protection services and amendments which have been made to state laws.

History of Child Abuse Laws

The legal definition of child abuse varies by state. It has also changed over time. Some states prohibit the use of physical force to discipline children. Others allow moderate forms of force. Despite these varying definitions, child abuse falls under criminal law. These laws provided children with the earliest protection against cruel treatment.

Great Britain first adopted child protection laws in 1889. Since then, other countries have established national centers and federal laws.

For instance, in 1875, New York became the first state to pass laws that protect American children. The state established the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC). This law helped serve as a standard for other states. In 1880, various states in America started raising the age of sexual consent for girls. Back then, the average age of consent among the states was 10 to 12 (except for Delaware, where it was 7).

In the 1900s, age of consent laws began to change. Governments have developed many child welfare policies to address child abuse and neglect. In 1935, the Social Security Act, which provided funding for children and families in need, was passed. Still, every year, child protective services agencies receive requests to assist millions of children experiencing abuse or neglect.

The Case of Mary Ellen Wilson

A 10-year-old girl named Mary Ellen Wilson was adopted from an orphanage in New York in 1874. But the adoptive father died not long after the adoption. This devastated Mary Ellen's mother, and her adoptive mother began abusing her daily. The neighbors complained, and a caseworker was assigned to Mary Ellen.

Cases of child abuse were unheard of in the 19th century. At that time, there were no child welfare agencies to handle child abuse incidents or provide the family services that may have assisted them. So, the caseworker sought the help of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

The ASPCA asked an attorney to plead the case before the Supreme Court in New York. They intended to terminate the abusive mother's parental rights. The case moved forward, and Mary Ellen Wilson testified in court about the abuse and maltreatment. The court charged the mother, and Mary Ellen was removed from the abusive home. She was later placed in the custody of the social worker who was instrumental in removing Mary Ellen from the abusive home.

The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded a year later. The social worker who worked on Mary Ellen's case adopted her, and the child lived a long life. This landmark case inspired legislation in New York. But it did not ignite a rapid change in national policy.

"The Battered Child Syndrome"

The American Medical Association published a journal article in 1962 titled: "The Battered Child Syndrome."

This research was an enormous milestone in the movement to address child abuse. Dr. Henry Kempe, the lead author and a pediatrician, discussed two case studies. Both were young children with unexplained fractures and head injuries. The injuries were speculated as non-accidental. Dr. Kempe noted that these children suffered domestic violence from their caretakers.

The presentation gained mixed reactions. Some medical providers were grateful to the doctor for exposing the truth of child abuse. Others criticized Dr. Kempe, questioning where he got the information. The providers also noted that they had never seen that type of abuse. At that time, the thought of parents harming their children was unimaginable.

Now, people understand why Dr. Kempe's paper is one of the most outstanding pieces of pediatric research in the past 150 years. A 2021 National Children's Alliance report found that a parent victimized 77% of abused children.

"Sexual Abuse: Another Hidden Pediatric Problem"

In 1974, the federal government launched the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). CAPTA defined child abuse. It also outlined initiatives and provided a structure for the federal government to address the issue. The Act included federal funding for child abuse assessments and background checks. It also addressed child treatment and reporting law. All 50 states, and most U.S. territories, have laws that make reporting child abuse and child neglect mandatory for certain individuals.

Dr. Kempe continued with his passion and expertise in pediatrics. In 1977, he delivered a lecture at a national pediatric conference titled "Sexual Abuse: Another Hidden Pediatric Problem."

Before the lecture, people reported less sexual abuse than the actual occurrence. But Dr. Kempe recognized the frequency of child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. He also confronted the medical profession's lack of initiative to address the issue.

Dr. Kempe looked at sexual abuse as more than a "social services" or "family" problem. He emphasized the responsibility of providers in the medical profession to keep children safe.

The works of Dr. Kempe were a "call to action" for people in the medical field. In 2009 the American Board of Pediatrics established a Child Abuse Pediatrics subspecialty. In that year, 191 pediatricians became certified in this new subspecialty. This started a new era of commitment, medical knowledge, and children's health and safety expertise.

Recognition of Child Abuse and Neglect

Almost 150 years have passed since Mary Ellen Wilson discussed her abuse in court. Today, society recognizes child abuse and neglect as a public health concern. Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect is a responsibility, not a choice.

Child abuse also gained significant attention among academics. Behavioral and social scientists gained interest in reports of child abuse, neglected children, and incest. Researchers in social theory, literature, and cultural and women's studies also touched on the issue. The attention to protecting children's rights was a significant social development in the 20th century.

In the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services was established in 1953. This agency supports programs that provide foster care for child abuse and neglect victims. The Children's Bureau, within the Department of Health and Human Services, administers child welfare programs supported by the agency. The number of children receiving foster care services is typically over 600,000 annually.

Seek Legal Help

It is essential to seek immediate help when a child's health and well-being are at issue. Call social services or law enforcement authorities if you or a loved one has experienced abuse. In appropriate situations, family members, or close friends of the family, may become foster parents of an abused or neglected child if they meet the requirements of their local social services agency.

family law attorney near you can advise on the proper steps to take if you or someone you know is affected by child abuse or neglect. They can also assist you in finding applicable legal remedies whether you are a guardian of an abused child or the one accused of committing the abuse.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • You can seek new child custody arrangements during an abuse case
  • Child abuse can affect legal rights to custody
  • An attorney can help create orders of protection

Always report suspected child abuse to law enforcement. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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