I recently read again the story of “Mary Ellen” —one of the first documented cases of child abuse in the United States. Social workers and child protection workers are familiar with the story, but I doubt that many outside those disciplines are. Let me share it with you.

Mary Ellen’s plight took place in 1874. Her spirit remains with us because her case is generally regarded as the beginning of public concern of abused and neglected children. Mary Ellen’s mother and father were dead and the New York Commission of Charities and Correction had given her to a Mr. and Mrs. Connolly, who were responsible for her care and were to report each year on her progress.

Instead, the Connollys abused her. She was beaten, locked in a room, rarely allowed outside and was not given adequate food or clothing. A neighbor, who was upset by the child’s screaming, told a mission worker about Mary Ellen. The mission worker could find no one to intervene; the police had no grounds because no crime was being committed, and no agency would get involved because they did not have legal custody. An appeal was finally made to Henry Bergh, the founder and president of the SOCA, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He seized her cause and was able to persuade a judge to hear her case. Mary was carried into the courtroom wrapped in a horse blanket. This is what the newspaper reported that she told the judge:

“My father and mother are dead. I don’t know how old I am. I call Mrs. Connolly Mama. I have never had but one pair of shoes, but I cannot recollect when that was… My bed at night has been only a piece of carpet stretched on the floor underneath a window. 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. [Mama] struck me with the scissors and cut me… I have no recollection of ever having been kissed by any one — have never been kissed by Mama. Whenever Mama went out I was locked up in the bedroom. I do not want to go back to live with Mama because she beats me so.”

Mary Ellen was removed from the Connolly’s home. Her case stirred public attention and complaints began to pour in to Henry Bergh.

So many cases of child beating and cruelty to children came to light that a community meeting of citizens was called and an association “for the defense of outraged childhood” was formed. This association gave rise to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Today, state and federal laws mandate our response to child abuse and neglect. One of the most effective strategies is a multidisciplinary team working jointly from the beginning. The Pittsburg County Child Crimes Unit, consisting of specially trained personnel from the Pittsburg County Sheriff’s Department, McAlester Police Department’s Detective Division, district attorney’s office, a child abuse medical examiner and a licensed professional counselor, are on the front lines working to protect, treat and seek justice for child victims. The Pittsburg County Child Advocacy Center provides the environment for the team to do their work.

Children are interviewed here, and receive sexual abuse examinations, if needed. A victim advocate helps the non-offending parent through the process by listening and connecting to needed services.

The Child Advocacy Center is here only because another group of concerned citizens wanted to improve our community’s response to child abuse. With community support, we shall continue to make a positive difference in the lives of Pittsburg County children. We must intervene on the behalf of the Mary Ellens of today.

Carolyn Hathcote is the Executive Director of the Pittsburg County Child Advocacy Center. For more information or requests for presentations, call 420-CARE (2273) or e-mail pc-care_ch@sbcglobal.net. Make tax-deductible donations to PC-CARE, Inc. and mail to 109 E. Carl Albert Pkwy., Suite D, McAlester, OK 74501-5039.

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