Social Sanctions for Violence against Children: Historical Perspectives
Gertrude J. Williams
Since the dawn of humanity, children have been treated with incredible cruelty and have had little recourse to the law which regarded them as things, not persons. They have been tortured, burned, dipped in ice water and rolled in the snow in order to "harden" them, flogged daily, starved, worked to death, sexually abused, and buried alive with their dead parents. Swaddled babies have been thrown around like balls for amusement. The upper-class child was not spared from socially sanctioned abuse; indeed, the brother of King Henry IV was dropped and killed as a child when he was being passed like a toy from one window to another. Children have been forced to observe public hangings and to examine rotting corpses to teach them what happens to bad children when they become adults. Special dummies have been used to terrorize children into being good, and several of them died of fright during these graphic lessons.
Laws against child abuse had rarely been enforced until 1874. In that year the director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which had been founded nine years earlier to enforce animal protection laws, petitioned the New York Supreme Court to remove an abused child, Mary Ellen Wilson, from her parents. The New York Times gave the case extensive coverage, and the ensuing public support led to the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children several months later. Since that time, except for the investigations of Caffey, Kempe, Helfer, Gil, and a few other pioneers, child abuse continued to be a socially repressed, scientifically and professionally unfashionable topic for the last one hundred years.
This essay first appeared in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, Winter 1973, Vol. V, No. 3, 2-11. Reprinted by permission, Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 1100 N.E. 13th, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 73117.
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Publication information: Book title: Corporal Punishment in American Education:Readings in History, Practice, and Alternatives. Contributors: Irwin A. Hyman - Editor, James H. Wise - Editor. Publisher: Temple University Press. Place of publication: Philadelphia. Publication year: 1979. Page number: 25.
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