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Child abuse has a lengthy history. Children have always been subject to abuse by their parents or other adults, and for many centuries laws failed to protect them. Children under English common law were considered the property of their fathers until the late 1800s; American colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries carried this tradition to the early years of the United States.

In the early 1870s, child abuse captured the nation’s attention with news that an eight-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 one 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 ten years, every state had statutes known as mandatory reporting laws. Mandatory reporting laws require certain professionals—doctors and teachers, for example—to report to police suspected child abuse situations. A 1974 federal law 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.

Inside History