Display of Kindness?

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When Etta Wheeler, a charity worker serving Hell’s Kitchen boarding houses in 1874, wanted to save 8-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson from an abusive stepmother, she had nowhere to turn. The concept of “child protection” did not yet exist. So she appealed to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which was the closest thing to a children’s advocacy agency in New York.

The ASPCA’s attorney took Mary Ellen’s case to court, sparking a public debate over how to defend children from abuse without violating their parents’ rights. Eventually, Wheeler set a legal precedent

by gaining custody of Mary Ellen, whose stepmother was sent to the state penitentiary.

Wheeler’s story, along with a pair of scissors purportedly used to beat Mary Ellen, can be found in the New York City Historical Society’s exhibit “Children at Risk: Protecting New York City’s Youths, 1653-2003,” which chronicles city reforms in child protection.

Largely financed by the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, “Children At Risk” includes paintings of street urchins in the 1700s, a replica of a frilly lace crib used for abandoned infants at the Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity, and photos by Jacob Riis that capture the stark contrast between gritty slums and spic-and-span orphanages.

“New York is, I firmly believe, the most charitable city in the world,” wrote Riis in his 1890 landmark book How the Other Half Lives.

Steven Jaffe, who curated the exhibit, spent over a year combing through archives from the New York Historical Society and gathering submissions from 18 different New York social service agencies that currently work with children. “These images depict the actual kids, the conditions in which they lived,” he says.

But some advocates say this isn’t the whole story. If New York was an incubator for child protection, it was far from a perfect one. After all, this is where the much-criticized orphan trains started in the mid-1800s, sending children to what some considered indentured servitude on farms in the Midwest.

“A lot of what the public’s untutored eyes would see in this sort of an exhibit is how we need to rescue these children and take them away [from their homes],” says Elie Ward, executive director of Statewide Youth Advocacy, a nonprofit that works on foster care reform. She worries about championing institutions and cases like Mary Ellen’s, where children were removed, rather than whole-family solutions. Says Ward, “That’s not the right way to go about it.”