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A Psychologist's Thoughts on Clinical Practice, Behavior, and Life

Child Abuse in America

It's a popular belief that Americans always cared about the welfare of their children but this is not true. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was established in 1874 after the widespread publicity given to a horrendous case, that of a ten year old Mary Ellen.

She had been severely beaten by her stepmother after the death of her father. The stepmother was the only mother she remembered, having been placed with her at eighteen months of age.

Mary Ellen had black and blue marks on her body and legs produced by a cane and whip. Once she was struck on the side of her head with scissors. She had no shoes and was not permitted to play with or talk to other children. Her bed was a piece of carpet. She had never been shown affection.

After hearing testimony of this abuse, the stepmother was sentenced to a year in prison and Mary Ellen was placed in an orphanage for she had no other relatives.

Within thirty years, 400 branches of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had been established. Many of the cases they dealt with were as appalling as Mary Ellen's.

A ten year old girl was locked in a basement. There, the rats so terrified her that she went mad. A year later she died in a mental hospital. The parents were sentenced to prison.

A six year old boy was severely beaten, his body being a mass of bruises and scars and his face and legs were covered with burns. Both eyes were blackened. His hands had been placed on a hot stove. The woman was imprisoned.

In the 1970s, when I lived in St. Louis, I was shocked to discover that corporal punishment still existed in public schools. Some parents applauded it, believing that this indicated their seriousness about education. This, though corporal punishment inhibits learning for it breeds justified resentment and, years later, can create unfortunate consequences though more from what the child had emotionally required and failed to receive than from the beating itself.

Today, despite the heritage of the SPCCs and the insights of modern psychology, corporal punishment still exists in some American schools. And legally too though it has been a hundred years since Henry Chapin wrote "The child is the judge of civilization...any community or state may be safely adjudged by the manner in which it approaches the problems of child life."*

*A few days after writing this item I read the following statistics in an issue of the Washington Post: that 10,000 to 20,000 students requested medical treatment after being beaten; that the paddle with which students are beaten on their buttocks is "about 15 inches long, two to four inches wide and a half-inch thick, with a six-inch handle at one end"; that students are paddled for such things as talking in class or being "disrespectful"; that 40% of these beatings occur in Texas and Mississippi; and that the students beaten are most often rural boys of elementary or intermediate school age.

Copyright (c) 2011, 2015 by Stanley Goldstein. All rights reserved.
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