In his book Wounded Innocents, writer Richard Wexler recounts the testimony of eight-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson in the first U.S. court case concerning child abuse. The year was 1874:
Mama has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day. She used to whip me with a twisted whip, a raw hide. The whip always left a black and blue mark on my body. I have now the black and blue marks on my head which were made by mama, and also a cut on the left side of my forehead which was made by a pair of scissors. She struck me with the scissors and cut me . . . I do not know for what I was whipped—mama never said anything to me when she whipped me.
Interestingly, this case was brought before the court by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Although there had been laws enacted as early as colonial times to prevent child abuse, in practice the legal system had mostly ignored the issue. In Mary Ellen’s case, the ASPCA successfully argued that the girl was protected under laws barring the mistreatment of animals.
As a result of the publicity surrounding Mary Ellen’s case, more than two hundred Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children sprang up around the country, and many states passed laws making child abuse illegal. However, public awareness of the problem wavered over the next eighty years, and child abuse remained a largely unacknowledged fact of life in America. Most communities continued to expect the family itself to deal with the issue; if anyone did intercede on the behalf of the victim, it was likely to be an extended family member or a pastor, and the problem was unlikely to be reported. Children were rarely removed from any but the poorest families.
Historically, authorities got involved only when violence resulted in severe physical injury or death. The passage of the first mandatory child abuse reporting laws at the state level in the early 1960s began a transformation of the issue— from a taboo family secret to a social problem worthy of academic debate. As reports came in from doctors and teachers, the public’s willingness to address the issue on a national level coalesced, and in 1974 Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). The act, which earmarked federal funds for states that passed mandatory child abuse reporting laws, has encouraged the passage of such laws in all fifty states.
Just as child victims of family violence once suffered in silence, so did most women victims. Researcher Del Martin writes that battered wives often remained isolated “as a result of our society’s almost tangible contempt for female victims of violence.” Prevailing societal attitudes allowed for a certain acceptance of wife-beating—it was seen as a man’s right as head of the household. Although some states enacted laws against spouse abuse, the crime was frequently difficult to prove, and the courts usually erred on the side of the defendant. As was the case with child abuse, authorities mostly stayed out of what was perceived as “family business.”
The growing awareness of child abuse and the emerging feminism of the 1960s laid the groundwork for a public acknowledgement of wife abuse. Early crusaders of the “battered women’s movement,” who sought to give voice to the oppressed by setting up victims’ shelters and speaking out about the issue, initially met with stiff resistance from traditionalists. Researcher Andrew Karmen writes that “many people, including some counselors and family therapists, believed that a high proportion of beatings were unconsciously precipitated or even intentionally provoked.”
While battered women’s advocates were attempting to replace a “victimblaming” outlook with a “victim-defending” one, some of the same researchers who had already broken new ground in their exploration of child abuse began to address the issue of wife battering from a sociological perspective. These researchers’ impersonal scientific approach lent an air of seriousness to a subject that had previously been dismissed by reactionaries. Domestic violence was suddenly the subject of scholarly journals and national academic conferences.
Data on wife abuse mounted and public awareness of the issue grew during the 1970s and 1980s, until Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994. Similarly to CAPTA, the VAWA provides federal funds to states for police, prosecutors, and prevention services in cases involving domestic abuse. Many states now use these funds to finance victims’ counseling programs or increased police enforcement of spousal abuse laws.
As public and academic acknowledgment of child abuse and wife battering has grown, other victims of family violence have been identified. The growing elderly population is increasingly included in family violence research. Many researchers are finding that men as well as women are victims of spousal abuse. And recent family violence research has expanded to address abusive behavior between siblings and in gay and lesbian relationships.
The different forms that family violence can take will be explored in this book’s first chapter: “Who Are the Victims of Family Violence?” Other chapters include “Is the Prevalence of Family Violence Exaggerated?” “What Are the Causes of Family Violence?” and “How Can Family Violence Be Reduced?” It is hoped that the viewpoints in Family Violence: Current Controversies will help readers understand the ongoing debates surrounding this serious social problem.
Did this raise a question for you?