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The man who cries out against evil men but does not pray for them will never know the grace of God. Saint Silouan the Athonite

         In 1874, nine-year old Mary Ellen Wilson was living in Hell’s Kitchen, the underbelly of New York City where she was beaten, neglected, and frequently chained to her bed. A religious missionary, Etta Wheeler, learned about Mary Ellen and attempted to rescue her. Police refused to investigate and Child Charities were consulted, but they felt they lacked authority to interfere. No Child Protective Services existed, and there was no juvenile court.

         Etta sought the advice of Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh asked his lawyer, Elbridge Gerry, to find a legal way to rescue the child. The lawyer used a law protecting animals to remove her from the guardians: they had Mary Ellen declared an “animal.”

         Following the successful rescue of Mary Ellen Wilson, Henry Bergh and Elbridge Gerry created a private charitable society devoted to child protection. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children became the world’s first organization devoted exclusively to child protection.

         But change in the welfare of children was slow and one hundred years later in 1974 the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry stated, “Incest is extremely rare, and does not occur in more than 1 in 1.1 million people.” The editors went on to say that an incestuous relationship actually provided the victim a type of resilience in its aftermath: “Such incestuous activity diminishes the subject’s chance of psychosis and allows for a better adjustment to the external world.”

         In 1992, children could be anxious or depressed but trauma was not a contributor to a child’s function. Extinguishing negative behaviors was the primary goal of therapy, not understanding life stories that sustained and created these behaviors. Often, the trauma history was dismissed or rarely incorporated into team meetings or evaluations, in spite of the fact that abuse in child welfare agencies was high.

         My hope is that this book, these stories, these lives will put an end to the myth that child abuse is rare. Your reading of this book will help enhance understanding that if abuse is left unrecognized and untreated it will continue to weave itself into the fabric of our culture and every individual, suffering will not end, and healing will be out of reach for both the abused and their abuser. I dedicate these pages to Etta, Gerry, Henry, Mary Ellen and to all who have been tormented before and since. This book is also dedicated to the abusers themselves, for I have learned that many perpetrators were victims first. And we cannot separate our healing prayers and love from one without hurting the other.

3 comments

  1. So thankful that you are inspiring me and others to remember the history of protective laws and that they are still unfolding.

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