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Child Abuse Background and History

Child abuse occurs when a parent or caretaker physically, emotionally, or sexually abuses, neglects, or abandons a child. Laws against child abuse are intended to protect children. At the same time, they leave open space for parents to raise and discipline their children. Controversies over child abuse laws can arise when parents or guardians feel that the government is interfering in their private family lives or believe that a child was removed from the home unnecessarily.

Learning more about the background and history of child abuse can help you understand how laws have evolved to protect children and how they might impact your loved ones today.

History of Child Abuse in the United States

Broadly defined as "any type of cruelty inflicted upon a child," child abuse is a new problem. Since presumably the beginning of time, some parents or other adults have abused their children. For many centuries, laws failed to protect children from abuse. For example, under English common law, children were considered their fathers' property, while women were considered that of their husbands. This persisted until the late 1800s. In the 16th and 17th centuries, colonists carried this tradition to the United States.

In the early 1870s, child abuse captured the nation's attention with news that an 8-year-old orphan, Mary Ellen Wilson, was beaten and whipped at her foster home on a daily basis. At that time, there were no organizations for protecting children against such abuse. So, the orphan's case fell to attorneys for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). They argued that laws protecting animals from abuse should not be greater than laws protecting children. Convicted of assault and battery, the foster mother received a one-year sentence. Outraged by Mary Ellen Wilson's case, a group of citizens formed the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1874.

Child abuse captured the country's attention again in 1962, when an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association described symptoms of child abuse and deemed child abuse to be medically diagnosable. Within 10 years, every state had statutes known as "mandatory reporting" laws. Mandatory reporting laws require certain professionals, such as doctors and teachers, to report suspected child abuse to state child protective services agencies or other proper authorities. A federal law from 1974, the Child Abuse Prevention & Treatment Act (CAPTA), further bolstered efforts to eliminate child abuse by funding programs to help individuals identify and report child abuse. It also provided shelter and other protective services to victims. However, child abuse continues despite these dramatic changes.

Child Abuse Statistics in the United States

Child abuse is more common than many people want to believe. According to Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, "at least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse or neglect in 2020 in the United States." Noting that this figure is "likely an underestimate" due to underreporting, the CDC also says, "In 2020, 1,750 children died of abuse and neglect in the United States." A report from 2020 by the Children's Bureau (of the United States Department of Health & Human Services) also indicates that children die from abuse at "a rate of 2.38 per 100,000 children in the population."

Hurt By a History of Child Abuse? An Attorney Can Help

If you or a loved one has been affected by child abuse, it's important to get help immediately. If you are in danger, you should call the authorities and go to a safe place. If you suspect that a child is being abused, it's also important to contact authorities. Regardless of whether you are the victim or allegedly committed abuse, it's always important to explore legal options. Contact a local family law attorney today.

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