Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

History repeated: child abuse in the United States

Joseph deBettencourt
Chicago, Illinois, United States


U.S. Border Patrol agents conduct intake of illegal border crossers at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018.
U.S. Border Patrol agents conduct intake of illegal border crossers at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018.

Q: Did you see any place for this child to sleep in?
A: No, Sir, except in one corner. The child told me she slept up in one corner of the room under the window.
Q: Did she show you where she slept?
A: No, Sir.
Q: Did she state what she slept on?
A: No, Sir.
– Sworn Testimony of Alonzo S. Evans, Special Agent for the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

On a cold December day in 1873, Etta Wheeler was making her way through the poor New York neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen delivering donations to families from St. Luke’s Mission. On her way down 41st Street, a resident of the tenements suggested she check in on their neighbor, a young girl named Mary Ellen Wilson. They believed the child was being mistreated, and reported hearing cries and yelling coming from the apartment as well as the angry voice of the child’s adoptive guardian, Mary Connolly. Etta, on entering the home of Mary Connolly, found Mary Ellen dressed in a thin tattered dress, with no shoes and no coat. The child was covered in bruises and cuts, and had no bed and no belongings. The apartment clearly was not set up to house a young child. Etta Wheeler knew she had to get the eight-year-old Mary Ellen out.

Etta went to the pastor of her church for help, but he declined to intervene in a family dispute. The police likewise declined to intervene without more evidence of abuse and explained there was currently no legal reason for them to get involved. Months passed and Etta was running out of options. She tried every government department and agency she could think might help her, until she landed in the office of Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Bergh was disturbed by the conditions Etta Wheeler described, and considered them to be similar if not worse than some cases of animal abuse he had witnessed. Bergh decided that since all other legal pathways had failed, he would opt for an unconventional approach. He wrote to a judge asking that the child be removed from the home under a habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is a legal recourse normally used to release people who have been unlawfully imprisoned. Bergh argued that because it was likely Mary Ellen would be subjected to further cruelty, she should be removed from her de facto imprisonment and the guardians be brought in for questioning.

The judge agreed, and Special Agent Alonzo S. Evans of the ASPCA and another officer were sent to rescue the child. The ASPCA’s lawyer Elbridge T. Gerry then brought the case against Mary Connolly. The ensuing court case made headlines and became a flashpoint for the formation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the eventual creation of Child Protective Services in the US. Mary Ellen Wilson’s case awakened many Americans to the reality and prevalence of child abuse in the United States. This child, and countless others since, were rescued by a good Samaritan and a group designed to protect animals from abuse.

Q: If you don’t have a toothbrush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, it’s not safe and sanitary. Wouldn’t everybody agree with that? Do you agree with that?
A: Well, I think it’s—I think those are—there is fair reason to find that those things may be part of safe and sanitary.
Q: Not “may be.” “Are” a part. What do you mean “may be”? You mean there are circumstances when a person doesn’t need to have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap for days?
A: Well, I think, in CBP custody, there’s—it’s frequently intended to be much shorter-term, so it may be that for a shorter-term stay in CBP custody that some of those things may not be required.
– 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Wallace Tashima questioning attorney Sarah Fabian, Oral Arguments for Jenny Flores v. William Barr No. 17-56297

On a hot June day in 2019, Elora Mukherjee visited a border control facility in Clint, Texas. According to interviews given by Mukherjee following her visit, she observed children as young as one being held without sufficient food, water, sanitation, or clothing. Since September, at least six children had died while in US custody, four of which were held at a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) facility like the one she saw that day.

Legal recourse for these children is often based on Reno v. Flores, which was settled in 1997 and created what is referred to as the Flores Agreement. The Flores Agreement set standards for the release and treatment of minors in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). While the agreement created standards for detention and the conditions of that detention, it has also been used to justify the continual captivity of migrant children.

This is not the first time there have been issues with minors being held at CBP facilities, but recent reporting on the conditions has ignited intense reactions. As in 1873, we are now seeing the flaws and the weaknesses in our current protections for children. Justice was only achieved in that seminal case because advocates looked for assistance through unlikely channels. Today, we may again have to find a new path to provide protections for these children under our nation’s care.

Pediatricians have the moral obligation and often the legal authority to provide care to children even without consent from a parent or guardian when it is in the best interest of the child. No physician would return a child to these conditions if they presented to an emergency department, so why would we allow them to remain in them now?

As a medical student, this issue poses a further challenge to engage and advocate for this vulnerable population. While we may not have the clout or legal authority to act on these issues we can still participate. We can educate ourselves on the complex history and spread that education to others. We can remember that in 1873 a young woman was able to change the fate of one child and many others thereafter, because she was willing to try every avenue open to her, even the unconventional ones.


End notes

  1. Shelman and Lazoritz, The Mary Ellen Wilson Child Abuse Case and the Beginning of Children’s Rights in 19th Century America.
  2. Markel, “1874 Case of Mary Ellen McCormack Shined First Light on Child Abuse.”
  3. Dickerson, “‘There Is a Stench.’”
  4. Wang, “‘I Have Never Seen Conditions as Degrading and Inhumane.’”
  5. “Republicans Misplace Blame for Splitting Families at the Border – The New York Times.”
  6. Carbone, “Legal Applications of the ‘Best Interest of the Child’ Standard.”



  1. Carbone, June. “Legal Applications of the ‘Best Interest of the Child’ Standard: Judicial Rationalization or a Measure of Institutional Competence?” Pediatrics 134, no. Supplement 2 (October 1, 2014): S111–20. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2014-1394G.
  2. Dickerson, Caitlin. “‘There Is a Stench’: No Soap and Overcrowding in Detention Centers for Migrant Children.” The New York Times, June 21, 2019, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/21/us/migrant-children-border-soap.html.
  3. Markel, Howard. “1874 Case of Mary Ellen McCormack Shined First Light on Child Abuse.” The New York Times, December 14, 2009, sec. Health. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/15/health/15abus.html.
  4. “Republicans Misplace Blame for Splitting Families at the Border – The New York Times.” Accessed June 23, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/14/us/politics/fact-check-republicans-family-separations-border.html.
  5. Shelman, Eric A., and Stephen Lazoritz. The Mary Ellen Wilson Child Abuse Case and the Beginning of Children’s Rights in 19th Century America. McFarland, 2005.
  6. Wang, Esther. “‘I Have Never Seen Conditions as Degrading and Inhumane’: Scenes From the Border Camps.” The Slot. Accessed June 23, 2019. https://theslot.jezebel.com/i-have-never-seen-conditions-as-degrading-and-inhumane-1835727893.




JOSEPH DEBETTENCOURT is a medical student at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Illinois, with an interest in pediatrics. He attended Northwestern University where he received a BA in Theatre and Pre-Medical Studies. He has worked as a professional actor, designer, and carpenter, as well as a standardized patient, and medical researcher.


Fall 2019  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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