Accidents & CrimesChild Abuse: History, Laws and the A.S.P.C.A

Child Abuse: History, Laws and the A.S.P.C.A


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From a historical perspective, child abuse has plagued society since the beginning of time. Two rights have been at the core of child abuse: the right to own property, and the right to own children.

In ancient Rome, fathers had absolute authority over their children. They alone decided which of their children lived or died. 

Children born deformed, disabled, or in any way outside of what was considered normal, children born of the ‘wrong’ gender, namely girls when boys were far more desirable, would be killed. Fathers had the right to maim and brutalize their children without fear of retribution. Harsh discipline was deemed necessary to mold the child into mindful, contributing human beings. 

In England, children as young as 5 years old were shackled and forced to work 16-hour-days in inhumane conditions in mines and factories. Cruel overseers frequently goaded these little children with whips and prods. 

Canada must also be accountable for its part in child abuse history. From 1870 to 1930, more than 8000 children were taken from the streets of Dublin and London, then shipped overseas to Canadian homes where they were beaten, demeaned and forced to labour on farms and in factories, all in the name of ‘shaping’ their young charges. In fact, these young people were nothing more than slaves.

In the late 1800s, a church worker named Etta Wheeler forever changed the face of parental authority in North America.

During a family visit, Mrs. Wheeler discovered 11-year-old Mary-Ellen, the step-daughter of the woman casually entertaining Mrs. Wheeler, shackled to her bed and badly beaten. 

Too tiny and ill-formed for her 11 years, it was quite evident Mary-Ellen was also grossly malnourished. Some of her scars were visibly healed over, giving a clear picture of long-term and sustained child abuse. 

Appalled by what she saw, Mrs. Wheeler reported the severe and obvious abuse and neglect to the authorities. The authorities could find no law that had been broken: in 1873—and even today in many countries—what went on behind the closed doors of the family was considered no one’s business but the family’s. 

But Etta Wheeler was determined: she marched herself into the American S.P.C.A. demanding they do something to help the battered Mary-Ellen.

Animals were protected, but children were not!

In order for the A.S.P.C.A. to act on behalf of Mary-Ellen, children had to be declared members of the animal kingdom, which is indeed what happened. The A.S.P.C.A. did finally intervene. 

Mary-Ellen was removed from her abusive home and placed in foster care, where she thrived. She eventually married and had 2 daughters of her own, one of whom she named Etta as a tribute to her rescuer. Mary-Ellen lived to the age of 92.

Mary-Ellen is considered the very first case of child abuse in North America, more because of the historical significance than the historical accuracy. The time had finally come to protect children as children, which lead to the creation of child abuse laws.

Today in Canada, the most notable laws governing child abuse are:

Age of Majority

Statute of Limitations

Duty to Report

AGE OF MAJORITY: A child becomes an adult at either age 18 or 19, depending on the province of residence. A minor child is between ages 0 to 18 or 19. 

STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS: In Canada there is no statute of limitations on reporting and charging someone with child abuse. Whether the abuse occurred 5 minutes, 5 days, 5 years, or 50 years ago, a report can still be made and charges can still be laid. 

Nowhere is this more evident than with the abuse that went on in Residential Schools with our native peoples. More than 7000 lawsuits have been filed against the Canada federal government, the Catholic church, and certain individuals alleging physical, sexual and emotional abuse during years spent in mandatory attendance and confinement in these Residential Schools.

DUTY TO REPORT: Of all the laws, statutes and conventions (namely, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Canada ratified December 13, 1991) governing child abuse in Canada, duty to report is by far the most important when it comes to child protection.

Duty to report dictates that known or suspected child abuse must be reported to the authorities. Failure to do so could result in charges being laid and up to a $10,000 fine. The purpose behind this law is to ensure that children are protected in a timely manner, that children aren’t being abused for their entire lives. 

What are the legal consequences if after reporting, an investigation proves child maltreatment was/is not present or cannot be proven?  There are no legal consequences as long as the report is made in good faith and in the best interest of the child.

Save a child: Report known or suspected child abuse!

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