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December/January 2020Vol. 20, No. 10The Lessons of Mary Ellen Wilson: Invest in Prevention

Written by Katie Albright, Safe & Sound, San Francisco

What would our child welfare system look like today if we had supported Mary Ellen Wilson's parents at the time when they so desperately needed help, when they were living in poverty and caring for their infant daughter in the late 1800s?

You may have heard of Mary Ellen Wilson. Her court case became the first reported child maltreatment case in our country. In April 1874, she was removed from an adoptive home after a neighbor, a home visiting nurse, and a community organization reported her severe abuse and neglect to the New York  State Supreme Court. This first-reported case of maltreatment ultimately led to the creation of the child welfare and foster care system that we know of today. 

While history remembers Mary Ellen Wilson's tragic circumstances, the story of her biological parents Frances and Thomas Wilson is nearly forgotten. By all accounts, they were well-meaning parents, but their own life circumstances prevented them from caring for their daughter. Thomas was a soldier in the Civil War. When he died fighting, Frances, now a widower, took a job doing laundry and could no longer stay at home to care for her infant daughter. Frances boarded Mary Ellen, which was common practice at the time. But when Frances' financial situation worsened, she missed visitation dates with her daughter and could not make child care payments, so the boarding house put Mary Ellen up for adoption. It was the abuse in this adoptive home that led to the court case.

This may be an interesting history. But why am I writing about the Wilson family?

My hope is to prompt consideration about how much better Mary Ellen's childhood outcomes might have been if we—as a community and as a country—had focused on supporting her parents, Frances and Thomas, in the first place, at the time when they deeply needed help. Instead of placing Mary Ellen out of her home, what if the community had a network of supports where Frances could have reached out for help when Thomas was at war? What if the family had access to food, housing, and child care? What if counseling services were available to help Frances cope with her tragedy—the loss of her husband and need to take care of her infant daughter on her own? What if support groups had been available to create a community so that Frances knew she wasn't alone? Ultimately, what if we had invested in prevention?

Today, far too many families in our country make the unfathomable choice between eating and paying rent. Parents go hungry so that their kids can have food. Families living in poverty are more likely to be isolated and work multiple jobs to gain needed concrete supports like food, clothing, housing, health care, and child care. The overwhelming majority of parents—all parents, no matter their economic status—want the very best for their children and work each day to keep them safe, healthy, and thriving. However, research shows a profound link between poverty and neglect, with individual poverty often a risk factor for neglect. Because of systemic racism, poverty and maltreatment disproportionately impact communities of color.

With the passage and implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, we have an opportunity to invest in prevention and community-based solutions to support families. In so doing, we have an opportunity to transform our child welfare system, which focuses on protecting children after harm occurs, into a family well-being system, which seeks to strengthen families, alleviate poverty, and prevent neglect before it happens.

Family Resource Centers (FRCs) provide critical community-based solutions and infrastructure toward these goals. Approximately 3,000 FRCs offer services that strengthen families and prevent maltreatment in 29 urban, rural, and tribal jurisdictions throughout the United States. FRCs partner with parents and caregivers to build protective factors, which research shows prevent child abuse and neglect. The Center for the Study of Social Policy enumerates five key protective factors that strengthen families:

  • Parental resilience: Managing stress and functioning well when faced with challenges, adversity, and trauma
  • Social connections: Positive relationships that provide emotional, informational, instrumental, and spiritual support
  • Knowledge of parenting and child development: Understanding child development and parenting strategies that support physical, cognitive, language, social, and emotional development
  • Concrete support in times of need: Access to concrete support and services that address a family's needs and help minimize stress caused by challenges
  • Social and emotional competence of children: Family and child interactions that help children develop the ability to communicate clearly, recognize and regulate their emotions, and establish and maintain relationships

Safe & Sound is just one of 26 FRCs in San Francisco that supports the diversity of families in our community. Similar to other FRCs, we provide a range of prevention services, giving parents and caregivers the opportunity to voluntarily seek help in the following ways:

  • Drop in to talk with a counselor about a parenting challenge or a family crisis
  • Access resources to find housing or a job
  • Attend a support group or workshop
  • Learn about skills for raising families, including evidenced-based parenting classes
  • Take a break in the common day area while their kids are in the playroom
  • Pick up food, clothing, diapers, and shampoo
  • Join together for a family meal, event, or activity
  • Call a phone line for help 24/7/365 days a year

All of these are supports that would have helped to keep Mary Ellen with her own family—and would help millions of parents and children living in poverty today.

Scholars have pointed to community-based programs as important solutions to helping families out of poverty and reducing neglect. Growing evidence shows that FRCs help parents mitigate risk factors and build protective factors that prevent childhood neglect. Investing in FRCs allow communities to increase access to jobs, housing, health care, child care, and other concrete supports for families; expand social connections and decrease isolation; increase family resilience; and, ultimately, prevent neglect for all children.

Let's learn the lesson of Mary Ellen Wilson and invest in prevention.

To learn more about FRCs, visit the National Family Support Network at
and Safe & Sound at