In my earlier blog Who is the Very First Foster Child Ever? Part 1 and Part 2, I began telling the story of 10 year old Mary Ellen Wilson, the first foster child in the United States.
Many historical references to Mary Ellen Wilson focus on the horrendous abuse and the court’s willingness to remove her from her parents’ custody. But foster families know all too well that removal from the home is not the end of any foster care saga. The true story is the one of the child’s recovery and path to permanency – a place to feel loved and safe forever.
So after the judge made Mary Ellen a ward of the state, what did the courts decide as her long-term fate?
At first, many potential adoptive families came forward, seeking to make Mary Ellen a member of their families. The New York Times had “fancifully written” about Mary Ellen’s beauty. Etta Angell Wheeler, a social worker of sorts, and the court were concerned that these families would not understand the special attention Mary Ellen would need due to her history of severe abuse. A few impostors claimed to be Mary Ellen’s family members, but these were ultimately proved false. When the judge decided to place Mary Ellen in a home not for little children but rather for young women , Etta decided this was not appropriate. Etta convinced the judge to award guardianship to Etta’s mother, and Mary Ellen grew up in the countryside with Etta’s mother and sister until adulthood.
During Mary Ellen’s time with Etta’s family, Mary Ellen learned what it meant to be loved, how to play like a child, make friends, follow rules, and she received an education. As an adult, Mary Ellen married and had two of her own children. All accounts say she was good and kind to her children, having broken the cycle of abuse.
140 years later, Mary Ellen’s legacy lives on: children have the right to be safe from abuse and neglect, and hurt children can heal and live meaningful lives.