In 1874, the issue of child abuse was put under the spotlight when it was discovered that Mary Ellen, a child in New York, was being physically abused by her foster parents, who hit her, tied her to the bed and deprived her of food. The police forces in New York could not interfere as child protection laws did not exist. There were, however, laws in place to protect domestic animals. As such, it was only possible to protect Mary Ellen from abuse after the law afforded the same level of protection to children as it did to animals. In fact, it was Henry Bergh, the influential founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), who in 1875 created The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – the world’s first entity devoted entirely to child protection.
Later, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded. Today, the society has a significant number of branches, and the role it plays in detecting and stopping child abuse is as important as that of the government and municipal bodies.
Whilst child cruelty has shocked and disturbed our society for hundreds of years, the issue had not been widely addressed. An important breakthrough in changing societal attitudes towards child abuse was achieved by Henry Kempe. In 1961, he presented the findings of his ground-breaking study, giving birth to the term ‘Battered-Child Syndrome’, which described the injuries sustained by a child as a result of physical abuse.
It can be said that nowadays, in most countries of the world, scientists and practitioners recognize the child abuse and neglect phenomenon as a complex problem, which needs to be solved through the united efforts of professionals from different fields, parents, and society as a whole. The most significant barrier to stopping abuse and ensuring that the victims are provided with adequate help continues to be our society’s failure to acknowledge and address the prevalent issues around them.
Fast forward to 2022 and the month of April is nationally designated as Child Abuse Prevention Month. We wish that wasn’t a thing and it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that innocent, vulnerable children could be physically abused, sexually abused, severely neglected and that an average of five children per day die as a result of the abuse. That’s five too many, but it’s just a fraction of the number that are victims who live to carry that trauma for the rest of their lives.
In a typical month in Florida, there are approximately 15,000 reports of abuse or neglect made to the state’s child abuse hotline. Child abuse crosses all races and socioeconomic levels, but is most prevalent in children birth to five years of age. So, who are the perpetrators, and why does this continue to be such a huge problem? That answer cannot be clearly stated, but we know for certain there is a lot of work to do in order to end child abuse.