Among the countless ways human rights can be violated, child abuse is the most heartbreaking of all. Nowadays, special laws against cruelty to children can protect their rights and provide them with a safe place and caring foster parents, but it was not always that way. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was only created in 1874, after the notorious Mary Ellen Wilson case shocked America. It is believed to be the first child-protective organization ever created in the world.
Mary Ellen’s life story was the first ever documented case of child abuse in the USA, which triggered important changes in the country’s law system.
The girl was born in 1864 to Frances and Thomas Wilson of Hell’s Kitchen, in New York City. Thomas Wilson was killed in the Civil War and Frances, who had to start working to earn some living, made the decision to put her daughter into the New York City Department of Charities.
That facility found adoptive parents, Mary McCormack and her new husband Francis Connolly, who turned out to treat the girl with unbelievable cruelty. The neighbors were the first to notice how badly mistreated the girl was. According to them, Mary Ellen was forced to do the hard labor, was repeatedly beaten, burned and cut and locked in the closet for days by her foster parents. The poor girl was severely malnourished and neglected. She had no warm clothes to protect her from cold weather and was only allowed to go outside during the night on the condition that she remained in her own backyard.
Due to a compassionate neighbor, who suspected the severe abuse, a Methodist missionary, Etta Angell Wheeler, was asked to check on the child. The neighbor made Mrs. Conolly leave the house by artifice in order to let Wheeler witness the terrifying living conditions of 10-year-old Mary Ellen. The girl was barefoot in December and had numerous cuts and burns all over her body.
The situation shocked Wheeler to the core and she started searching for legal ways to help the girl, even though there was no official base to protect the abused child. With the help of a lawyer from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Mary and Francis Connoly were taken to trial. During the testimony in court, Mary Ellen revealed:
I don’t know how old I am. I have no recollection of a time when I did not live with the Connollys. Mamma has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day. She used to whip me with a twisted whip—a rawhide. The whip always left a black and blue mark on my body. I have now the black and blue marks on my head which were made by mamma, and also a cut on the left side of my forehead which was made by a pair of scissors. She struck me with the scissors and cut me; I have no recollection of ever having been kissed by any one—have never been kissed by mamma. I have never been taken on my mamma's lap and caressed or petted. I never dared to speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped. I do not know for what I was whipped—mamma never said anything to me when she whipped me. I do not want to go back to live with mamma, because she beats me so. I have no recollection ever being on the street in my life.
Fortunately, the girl was placed in the safe juvenile home and, later, under the custody of Etta Wheeler. At the age of 24, she married Lewis Schutt and they had 2 children together. She also adopted his three children from a previous marriage. Later the couple adopted a young orphan girl. Mary Ellen died at the age of 92.
Her sad story caused a revolution in the American law system and spread awareness about child abuse.
Now, studies reveal a shocking fact: About 5 million children suffer from domestic abuse each year in America. It is important to recognize the signs of bad mistreatment and report the case to the local authorities.
Apart from the evidence of the physical abuse such as bruises, cuts, burns, torn clothes, broken body parts that occur often and can't be explained, and untreated medical or dental issues, there are behavioral signals which are harder to identify. They are:
- avoiding any physical contact;
- fear to look in somebody's eyes;
- staying aloof from everyone;
- being alert all the time;
- signs of anxiety;
- wearing clothes that don’t match the weather;
- stomach problems.
Most often, the abusers are close family members, so children can rarely speak out against them. That is why it is paramount to intrude and try to help the child by raising awareness of special organizations that specialize in helping and protecting kids. If a child is in danger, every minute counts.