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History of Child Abuse Prevention

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, a tradition formally established in 1983 after decades of efforts by children’s advocates who pushed to create and change laws to protect those most vulnerable in society. The purpose of the month is to raise national awareness about child abuse prevention and how individuals and communities can help prevent the abuse and neglect of children.  

In 1874, ten-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson was a survivor of the first high-profile child abuse case in the United States. At a historical time when animal cruelty was prioritized over the treatment of children, a number of prominent New York citizens advocated for Mary Ellen, including a well-known social worker named Marietta “Etta Wheeler. Wheeler consulted the police on the allegations of physical abuse by Mary Ellen’s adopted mother, but they declined to investigate the case. Although there were multiple child assistance charities at the time, when Wheeler sought assistance from these charities, they lacked authority to intervene in the family. Eventually, Wheeler consulted the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Henry Bergh. Bergh and his lawyer worked to find a legal mechanism to rescue Mary Ellen, and a judge ordered the girl to be removed from her foster mother. The New York State Supreme Court heard the case, and a jury convicted the girl’s foster mother of assault and battery in the nation’s first child abuse conviction. Following the rescue of Mary Ellen, Bergh worked to create a charitable society devoted to child protection called the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. This development was the first in a series of steps to begin protecting children from abuse and neglect.  However, notably, Mary Ellen Wilson’s case only came to light because an unknown “concerned neighbor” called upon an activist who worked locally in the area to check in on the child. 

In 1962, Dr. C. Henry Kempe and Brandt F. Steele published their pioneering paper, “The Battered Child Syndrome,” in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This article exposed the reality of child abuse and provided doctors with concrete ways to identify, understand, and report suspected child abuse to authorities. Less than ten years after the article’s release, all fifty states in the nation had passed some form of a mandatory reporting law for child abuse.  

The child protection movement has continued to grow and evolve, with federal legislation enacted in 1974 under the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act (CAPTA) which provided federal funding to states for prevention, identification, and treatment resources. In the early 1980s, the United States Congress made a commitment to identify and implement solutions to preventing child abuseincluding designating the month of April as National Child Abuse Prevention month. Annually, child protection advocates participate in the National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN)  to identify better outcomes for child protectionFederal legislation furthering child protection and abuse prevention efforts continues to be enacted, such as the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA)and the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017, as well as the Child Protection Improvements Act of 2017 Former President Barack Obama once said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” The numerous advocates who began the child abuse prevention movement are the change-makers who refused to accept what was currently in place was the way it should always be. These were the people who fought to make the voices of children heard and who continue to inspire and activate current and future child abuse prevention advocates.  

As a nation, we have evolved significantly since 1874 in our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in our society. However, this change would not have happened without those who were willing to pick up the torch and pass it to the next advocate. Remember that the initial flame which sparked our nation’s attention and response to child abuse was lit by aunnamed person —a concerned neighbor—who identified child in great need of help. Each one of us has the opportunity and responsibility to be a change-maker and torchbearer for child abuse prevention. Light the flame, carry the torch, and never stop advocating to protect the ones who need it the most. For more information on how you can engage and advance the child abuse prevention movement, contact  

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Andy Warhol.  


Take a look at for helpful resources to support your Child Abuse Prevention Month efforts.

Watkins, S.A. (1990). The Mary Ellen myth: Correcting child welfare history. Social Work, 35(6), pp. 500-503.