Abuse used to be a taboo (unspeakable, avoided) topic. The idea in the past was that parents all but owned their children, and that husbands all but owned their wives. If you go back far enough, (and you don't have to go back that far at all; a mere 150 years will do), you find the idea that human beings could literally be property (e.g., slaves) and therefore abused at the arbitrary whim of their owners was widely accepted throughout the world. In such a world where people could be property, abuse was rampant, rationalized and simply not discussed all that much.
Thankfully, the idea that people could be owned, and the more general idea that some people are better than other people because of circumstances of their birth has been progressively discredited, at least in public forums. Slavery was outlawed in the United States in the aftermath of the 1860's Civil War. Women gained the right to vote in 1919. Abusive child labor was outlawed in the 1930s. These changes set the stage for increasing awareness of abuse as a serious societal problem; an awareness that continues to evolve today.
Even with these reforms in place, until very recently, most instances of abuse were seen as personal issues that outsiders had no business getting involved in. For instance, it was widely accepted that parents had the right to discipline their children as they saw fit and no one could legitimately say otherwise. Today, this attitude of secrecy has changed, and much of the abuse taboo has worn away. People are increasingly willing to talk about abuse they have sustained, and society as a whole is more willing to intervene to protect vulnerable victims of abuse, especially when those victims are children. Child protective services (CPS) departments are funded (however anemically) by every state. There are now laws that describe under what circumstances it is appropriate for law enforcement officials to intervene in abusive domestic disputes and child and elder abuse cases. Many helping professionals, such as medical doctors, psychologists, teachers, and certain caregivers, are now mandated to report abuse to state agencies when they learn of it. For example, when a professional becomes aware of child abuse or neglect, he or she must notify appropriate government agencies, such as child protective services at the state or county level (See Appendix A for a list of numbers and websites by state), or face legal consequences him or herself. The CPS agency is mandated to follow up on reports and determine whether abuse has actually occurred. If abuse is determined to be ongoing and a threat to children's welfare, CPS staffers are empowered (with the blessing of the courts) to remove children from abusive homes and place them into foster care while their parents undergo counseling. Similar adult protective services agencies (created through local Area Agency on Aging, or Department of Social Services agencies at the state and county government level) are available to investigate eldercare abuse reports. However, you should be aware that often these agencies are severely understaffed and/or under-funded, so they may only be able to respond to the most serious of abuse reports.
In addition to becoming proactive about abuse prevention in terms of personal relationships, government has also become more receptive to working to deter hate crimes, and other instances of institutional abuse. As described above, many states have (or have attempted to) put legislation into place that mandates stronger penalties for persons convicted of hate crimes. In institutional settings such as schools, some attention has recently been giving to implementing methods for preventing bullying.
Abuse may be part of the seductive dark side of human nature and impossible to eradicate entirely. However, by shedding light on the subject and by compelling action being taken to interrupt abuse when it is identified, the impact of abuse on some people's lives can be lessened.