In the criminal justice system, it often appears the victim has no voice, particularly if the victim is under the age of 18. The public is appalled at the lurid headline stories of child abuse and murder. Yet this is a practice that is part of our our history. It was not so long ago “child abuse” was not considered abuse, but was legal.
Although some courts did protect a few children, it was left to the courts to determine the fate of abusers: in 1810, a woman was found not guilty for murdering her newborn; in 1856, California saw its first rape conviction and the victim was thirteen years of age.
In the coalmines dotting the rural landscape, beginning about 1866, boys between the ages of eight and 12 years old were hired as “breaker boys.” They removed impurities by hand, usually by breaker. These children worked an average of 10 hours a day, six days a week, perched on wooden seats and over the chutes and conveyor belts. They were picking slate and other impurities out of the coal as it passed by. Many fell to their deaths or died from the physical labor or unhealthy environment (source).
The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was not created until 1875. The first juvenile court followed in 1899 (in Chicago).
The rural areas had little access to such courts and relied on a reporting system by people who also worked their children to survive. The Great Depression (1930s) saw fast decline of nonprofit entities to protect children. It was not until 1946 the need for medical personnel education was dubbed as a necessity. During the rise of human rights issues awareness in the 1960s, child welfare became a focus (more here).
Today, the issues facing children who are abuse victims and survivors are the same issues plaguing the United States, and other countries, throughout history; poverty, children contributing to the family income for survival, abuse, neglect, sex trade industry, lack of legal evidence, the court system, and more.
Here are photographs of children; a historical journey showing how some children lived throughout time. Was it abuse? In this age, yes. At the time, it was life.
In poor rural areas, children worked to help the family survive. Because of their size, they were able to fit into the tiny spaces of coalmines.
An article based on the photographs from Lewis Hine, explains the demand for labor grew after the Civil War and the industrial boom, meaning many children were inducted into the work force. From 1890 to 1910 the number of children working in industrial jobs raised dramatically. They worked for industrial wages, were usually under the age of 15, and were small: small hand were more adept at picking small bits, handling the small tools, and slipping into smaller spaces. (source)
This girl is 11 years old. She is working as a cotton picker in Oklahoma. Lewis W. Hine took the photo in 1916. Hines’ photography helped raise awareness of child labor.
Chicago, The Great Depression
During the Great Depression, people were forced to make ends meet by any means necessary. This woman, distraught, must have felt her children might have a better life if they were with another family. Her actions were legal at this time. The 1930’s Great Depression was worldwide. Personal income, tax revenue, profits and prices dropped, while international trade plunged by more than 50%. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25%.
These three little girls were employed as oyster shuckers. In 1924, Congress proposed a constitutional amendment prohibiting child labor, but the states did not ratify it. Then, in 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. It fixed minimum ages of 16 for work during school hours, 14 for certain jobs after school, and 18 for dangerous work. (learn more)
In low socioeconomic families, children were put to work as soon as possible to help the family survive. Because of their size, they were able to fit into tiny places, like a chimney. This little fellow worked during the United Kingdom industrial revolution, XIX Century. Britain was the first to pass laws regulating child labor. From 1802 to 1878, a series of laws gradually shortened the working hours, improved the conditions, and raised the age at which children could work (source).
During the late 19th and early 20th century, there were few laws protecting children in the workforce, but to meet demands and make a hefty profit, mill owners either ignored the laws or found ways to beat the laws. For example, in North Carolina, children were hired as long as they were 13 for employment in the mills. Children under 18 were allowed to work up to 66 hours per week. In South Carolina, factory employees could begin work at age 12. But if a child was an orphan or had parents who were unable to work, the child was allowed to work at any age and any amount of hours. Children as young as 6 were allowed on premises to assist, but were not on payroll. They were taught to hide when inspectors came to the job site (source).
This photo is over 150 years old. It was discovered in the attic of a home in Charlotte, North Carolina. John is one of the boys. With the photo was a document detailing the sale of John for $1,150.00 in 1854. Black children had no rights, just as their families, during this time in history; they worked alongside their elders in all manners of labor: fieldwork, cleaning, learning the life of a slave.
This child, in full Ku Klux Klan regalia, sees his reflection in the riot shield of a black officer. This was taken in the United States during a protest in 1992. It is legal to dress a child in this suit due to the First Amendment Act (adopted in 1791 to the amendments constituting the Bill of Rights).