Illustration of a Social Worker Removing a Child from an Abusive Dwelling

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Illustration of a Social Worker Removing a Child from an Abusive Dwelling


By: Anonymous

Date: c. 1890

Source: © Bettmann/Corbis.

About the Artist: This illustration is part of the collection of the Bettmann Archives of Corbis Corporation, an image group headquartered in Seattle, with a worldwide archive of over seventy million images. The illustrator is not known.


A family's treatment of their children was considered a private matter until the late 1800s in the United States. While corporal punishment was common as a disciplinary method, the degree of physical discipline—and the line between corporal punishment and abuse—was loose and erred on the side of the parents. Child labor laws, until the 1910s, did little to protect children from abuses by employers. British and American literature from the mid- to late 1800s documented child abuse of children in orphanages, the home, the workplace, and in towns and cities; writers such as Charles Dickens detailed the plight of rich and poor children in his novels.

In England and the United States, poor children worked in mines, entering the workforce at the age of four or five, working in cramped, dark, damp mines pushing trams of coal for fourteen hours a day with no opportunity for school or church. "Free labor" came from children who lived at home with their parents, working to earn wages to help the family. Parents could withdraw their children from unsafe working conditions, but "parish labor" or "pauper labor," work done by children of the poor in workhouses, or by orphan children, was done by force. The children had no choice, and abuses against these children were extreme and widespread.

The idea of childhood as a life stage in need of protection and nurturing was not prevalent until the 1840s and 1850s, when middle-class women began to view their roles as women being dependent on children's roles as innocent beings in need of proper treatment and care. The cult of domesticity or "true womanhood" emerged as the concept of childhood formed; a mother's role, according to this ideal, was to teach her children to be moral human beings, to take childhood innocence and preserve that moral purity while raising a productive, ethical member of society. As this concept of childhood as a protected phase gained credence, Progressive Era reformers applied the ideal to all children and to campaigns for child labor limits, education rights, and protections for children against physical abuse that led to permanent disability and even death.

Through the 1870s, however, child abuse by adults was considered a domestic issue, as was spousal abuse. In the late 1860s, laws against cruelty to animals were passed in some states; by the early 1870s, reformers began to push for similar laws to protect children.



See primary source image.


In 1873, the case of Mary Ellen Wilson, a nine-year-old orphan, gained the attention of nurse Etta Wheeler. Mary Ellen was being raised by a foster mother in Hell's Kitchen, one of the worst neighborhoods in New York City at that time, and the child exhibited scars and open wounds that were clearly marks of extreme abuse. While Wheeler worked to have Mary Ellen removed from her home, the police and courts told her it was a matter between parent and child. Wheeler appealed to Henry Bergh, a wealthy businessman who had been instrumental in the formation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and asked for his assistance.

In 1874, Henry Bergh asked lawyer Elbridge Gerry for help. Gerry pushed through the court system on Mary Ellen's behalf. Noted journalist Jacob Riis wrote about Mary Ellen's case; the girl herself stated in court that: "I am never allowed to play with other children; momma has been in the habit of whipping me almost everyday; she used to whip me with a twisted whip—a rawhide; the whip always left black and blue marks on my body; I have now on my head two black and blue marks which were made by momma with the whip, and a cut on the left side of my forehead which was made by a pair of scissors in momma's hand; she struck me with the scissors and cut me; I have no recollection of ever having been kissed and I have never been kissed by momma: I have never been taken on momma's lap or caressed or petted; I never dared speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped; I have never had … any more clothing than I have on at present … I have seen stockings and other clothes in our room, but I am not allowed to put them on; whenever momma went out, I was locked up in the bedroom." Mary Ellen was removed from her home, placed in the care of a loving family, and went on to live into her nineties. Societies for child protection appeared across the country as social workers took up the cause of child welfare. By 1900, more than 161 such societies existed.

The belief that child treatment was a family matter persisted, but laws and social attitude slowly changed. While spanking as a form of discipline persisted, by 1912 Congress created the Children's Bureau, and in 1944 the United States Supreme Court affirmed the state's right to intervene in family matters in the court case Prince v. Massachusetts. In 1962, the concept of child abuse as a syndrome or a subject for distinct study appeared with the publication of the article "The Battered Child Syndrome" in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In response to the article, social workers and social policy experts crafted a policy approach to managing and controlling child abuse.

Throughout the 1980s, the role of school officials, church youth workers, and medical staff as "mandated reporters" became law. People in such roles, with close contact with children, have a legal obligation to report child abuse. While the current social work model in most states emphasizes keeping families intact, children are often removed from abusive homes, as are the children in the illustration above. In 2004, approximately nineteen percent of all child maltreatment cases ended with the child's removal from the home, though many families are reunited after parents attend counseling and complete other required steps for family reunification.



Childhood in America, edited by Paula S. Fass and Mary Ann Mason. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Heywood, Colin. A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2001.

Zelizer, Viviana. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.


Hempe, C. "The Battered Child Syndrome." Journal of the American Medical Association 181 (July 17, 1962): 17-24.

Web sites

New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. 〈〉 (accessed July 22, 2006).