In 1873, nurse Etta Wheele was making rounds in a New York City tenement. She had heard stories about a girl who was being held hostage and abused by her foster family. After talking her way into the apartment, she caught her first glimpse of nine-year-old Mary Ellen.
The child was barefoot, half clothed and half starved. A cat of nine tails lay nearby, and her arms and legs showed the effects of its use. Her face bore the look of suppression and misery. Over the next two months, Mrs. Wheeler reported the child’s plight to police and charities trying to save her, nothing was done. As there were no laws to protect children, no laws were being broken.
She contacted Henry Bergh, the president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which had been started nine years earlier. Bergh convinced a judge to allow the society to intervene.
“I saw the child brought in wrapped in a horse blanket, at the sight of which men wept aloud,” said Jacob Riis.
Mary Ellen’s body was one large bruise, and her face wore scares and slashes caused by her foster mother’s scissors. Using the only tools available, which were laws placed on the books to protect animals, they saved Mary Ellen. This was the first case of removal, and New York City was the first to establish a child protective agency.
Mrs. Wheeler and the suffragettes then went on a campaign against child abuse. Their programs were rooted in prejudice as most were women of wealth and privilege. However misguided their efforts, something was being done.
Throughout history, children have been viewed as property or as possessions. In many cases, people had as many children as possible, to provide the free labor needed to run the farm of business. Until the Civil War, children were being used as slave labor throughout the world. While slaves had some rights and were considered valuable for their monetary worth, children held no such value. A war was fought in this country to end slavery, while children worked in factories and died every day from starvation and worse.
If you became an orphan before the Civil War and for some time after, your chances of living to be old enough to escape the orphanage were slim. After the Civil War, children were taken from families at an alarming rate. To be placed in foster care or an orphanage, at that time, was akin to being placed in prison. The entire affair was a good old boy system which further victimized those placed into it. Since most of those being taken were children from the poor, immigrant neighborhoods, no one cared.
Then child abuse advocacy faded again. Throughout World War I, the Depression and World War II, it was ignored. The family needed to be a strong, sacred institution so children took one for the country.
Child abuse advocacy mirrors social revolution, and as it had begun during the years following the abolishment of slavery, it resurfaced during the Civil Rights movement. In the early sixties, laws were passed requiring doctors and teachers to report suspected child abuse. During this time it was discovered that X-rays could clearly distinguish between normal broken bones and those broken during abuse. For the first time, child abuse could be proven.
With the freedom of the Cultural Revolution, sexual abuse was discussed for the first time. Studies determined that all forms of abuse ran across our entire society, crossing all cultural, economic and sociological boundaries. Abuse was no longer believed to afflict only the poor, which was never true.
What followed was a veritable witch hunt. For years, allegations of abuse destroyed children and parents alike. While much was accomplished, many innocents were persecuted. Many lived in fear of a system, still rife with better than thou people. Children and adults, mostly poor, feared and loathed it. We are still dealing with the backlash of that witch hunt today.
Last year there were 3 million reported cases of abuse in our country. Admittedly, the studies which produced these statistics indicate there are two unreported to each reported case. That means 9 million cases in America last year. Of those, only nine percent resulted in charges. Out of that nine percent, only nine percent resulted in a conviction. There are five children beaten to death in our country, each day, at the hands of those they know, love and trust. Their average age is three years old.
The child protection service agencies have now become reactionary entities. So many laws were placed into effect, after the witch hunts. In many cases, their hands are now tangled in red tape. By the time a child can be removed, many times that child is damaged beyond repair. They will visit the horrors they endured upon another generation of innocent children.
The thousands of social workers and foster parents are not at fault. They are far outnumbered and poorly supported. These jobs are the hardest on earth and those who do them are unsung heroes.
Foster parents must give of their hearts freely, to children who have no idea what a heart is and who place no value on the gift. The foster parents I’ve talked to assure me one child who becomes a productive, loving person, is worth the hundreds of broken hearts and spent tears they endure.
Now for the question I am asked repeatedly. What can be done about child abuse? Clearly, our current system does not work. Greater minds than mine have worked on this problem for the last century. Yet the statistics grow. Frustrated, the majority of our population continues to turn a blind eye. They ignore the numbers which continue to grow, despite the educated, enlightened nature of our country and the world.
When a thing hurts too much, it’s easy to look away. I deal with this daily; advocates against child abuse are not popular and spend much of their time speaking to smiling, agreeing people who will never speak to them again.
Many of us who were abused have inherent flaws, which prevent us from being foster parents or adopting. In many cases, the educated have no experience and look down on those who do. They forsake the help of those who have a better understanding and a vested interest in stopping this epidemic. I say again, beware the self-righteousness of the right. It’s easy to pass judgment on children when you have no clue of what they are going through.
Now for the answer, if there is one. In some societies, children are trained to hate, beginning at their earliest moments. I am in no way suggesting such a course of action. However, to put an end to such hate requires wiping the slate clean.
What I mean to say is, in order to decrease the massive amounts of abuse, the change needs to start with the young. First, a few words of caution. Already the country believes that a child must simply cry wolf to condemn their parents. I am told often that we have lost control of our children, because we can no longer punish them. Furthermore, they are disrespectful and lazy. Again, excuses to stand by and allow what is happening to continue. However, to some extent this is true and another indicator that our system is failing. If you don’t know the difference between discipline and beating a three-year-old to death, write me. I’ll explain it.
We cannot legislate this out of our society. We may jail as many as we like, but until all Americans understand, to our core, that children are not possessions or property there will be no change. Parenting classes given to adults will not make this go away. This change must start with our children. We need to develop a curriculum that can be taught, beginning in the first grade and continuing throughout their education. One which makes it totally unacceptable to hurt a child under any circumstances.
The program D.A.R.E works on this principle, and it had made a difference. Now even smoking cigarettes has become deplorable in the eyes of many children. We need child abuse to become repulsive to all people, before they reach adulthood. Even if we take such measures, it may take up to three generations for this program to make a difference. The monetary cost might be great, but our jails are full of the abused and our homes are full of the unhappy.
Make no mistake, we are paying heavily for what we do to our children. We must break the cycle, and it will require all of us to do it. Just because abuse did not touch your household does not mean that someone you love will not be abused, assaulted or otherwise victimized by someone who was abused. Now, for my question to you. Why does our society continue to become more violent? Nine million cases of abuse each year? HELLO.
We need to gather together people with the education and determination to make those in our government who can make a difference to make a real difference.Please feel free to contact me and point out how wrong I am, or to put petty differences aside and change the world for our children.