Child Abuse Background and History

Child abuse includes neglect, mental and physical harm as well as sexual abuse of a child. It is generally prosecuted as assault and battery. In all states across the nation, child abuse is a serious criminal offense. While the law seeks to protect children, it also allows the parents to discipline their children when required. There have been many controversies on child abuse laws as many parents see it as governmental interference in family lives.

Child abuse is as old as human civilization. Until the late 1800s English common law held children to be the property of their fathers. This traditional view was adopted by the American colonists and continued to the early years of the United States. Child abuse caught the attention of the nation in the early 1870s when Mary Ellen Wilson, an eight year old was subject to daily whipping and beating by her foster parents. At that time there were no organizations for the protection of child rights. Some attorneys for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals moved by her plight argued that law protecting animals should not be greater than laws protecting children. The judge convicted the foster mother and sentenced her to a year in prison. The outrage over Mary’s plight resulted in the formation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1874.

In 1962 the Journal of the American Medical Association contained an article describing the symptoms of child abuse and claimed that child abuse could be medically diagnosed. This resulted in the enactment of mandatory reporting laws in all states – certain persons are required by law to report cases or suspected cases of child abuse to the authorities. In 1974 a law was passed that provided federal funding for the identification and reporting of child abuse and for providing protection and shelter to victims of child abuse.

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