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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 regarding child abuse seek to protect children, while at the same time allowing parents the right to raise and discipline their children as they see fit. Controversies over child abuse laws can arise when parents or guardians feel that the government is interfering in their private family lives or have removed a child from the home unnecessarily.

History of Child Abuse in the United States

Child abuse has a  lengthy history. Children have been subject to abuse by their parents or other adults since presumably the beginning of time. For many centuries laws failed to protect children from abuse. Children under English common law were considered the property of their fathers, as women were considered property of their husbands, until the late 1800s. American colonists in the 16th and 17th centuries carried the tradition of children being property of their fathers to the early years of the United States.

In the early 1870s, child abuse captured the nation's attention with news that an 8 year old orphan named Mary Ellen Wilson was suffering daily whippings and beatings at her foster home. With no organization in existence to protect abused children, the orphan's plight fell to attorneys for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). These attorneys argued that laws protecting animals from abuse should not be greater than laws protecting children. Mary Ellen Wilson's case went before a judge, who convicted the foster mother of assault and battery and gave her a 1 year sentence. More significantly, the orphan's case generated enough outrage over child abuse that in 1874, citizens formed the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Child abuse captured the country's attention again in 1962, when an article appearing 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 the state child protective services agency or other proper authorities. A 1974 federal law, 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 and to provide shelter and other protective services to victims. However, child abuse continues despite these and subsequent child abuse prevention laws.

Child Abuse in the United States Today

Child abuse is more common than many people care to believe. In the United States each year more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made which involve almost 6 million children. Each day 4 or 5 children are killed by child abuse or neglect. Children whose parents abuse alcohol & drugs are 3 times more likely to be abused and 4 times more likely to be neglected than other children.

For more information on what to do if you suspect child abuse, see the Where to Get Help for Child Abuse article or check the resources available in your state.

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