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Friday, May 6, 2016

First child abuse case reported in 1874

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Editor's note: This is the final segment of a three-part series.

The first documented case of child abuse is the story of Mary Ellen in 1874.

Her case is generally regarded as the beginning of public concern for the plight of abused and neglected children.

Mary Ellen's parents were dead and she had been given to a Mr. and Mrs. Connelly by The New York Commission of Charities and Correction. The Connellys beat her almost every day, locked her in a room, rarely let her outside and did not give her adequate food or clothing.

A neighbor, upset by Mary Ellen's screaming, reported it to a mission worker, who could not get police or agencies to intervene.

Until that time, our history has not been one to value children. The willful killing of children was not uncommon, particularly for the weak or female. Children were viewed as property and the head of the household had the power of life or death over them. Abandonment, beatings, whippings and other forms of severe physical discipline were common practice. Children were not recognized as persons and they had no rights.

An appeal was finally made to Henry Bergh, the founder and president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He felt Mary Ellen deserved the same protection given, by law, to animals and was able to get a judge to hear her case.

Mary Ellen was carried into the courtroom wrapped in a horse blanket. She told the judge she knew her parents were dead, but she didn't know how old she was. Her bed was a piece of carpet. She couldn't recollect ever being kissed by anyone, not even her "mama" and Mary Ellen did not want to go back to live with her. She was removed from the people who had mistreated her.

Mary Ellen's case stirred public attention. The year after her situation came to light, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formally incorporated.

During that time, factories and coal mines relied heavily on cheap child labor under age 12 and some as young as age 4. They worked 12 to 15 hours a day for dismal wages and many died because there were no controls for safety or sanitation.

The X-ray was developed in 1910 and by 1946, doctors were reporting cases of injuries and untreated fractures. Other doctors began speaking out against physicians ignoring multiple injuries to children willfully committed by their parents.

Legislative action soon followed and by 1965, every state had enacted a child abuse reporting law. During the 1960s, judges realized they were making decisions without hearing from the child. Some judges asked social workers or friends to informally investigate child abuse cases and make recommendations.

In 1982, the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Assoc., Inc. was established. CASA de-scribes volunteers from the local community trained to serve as advocates for abused and neglected children involved in juvenile court proceedings.

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