Witnessing Child Abuse | What Should You Do?

You’re standing in a long line at the grocery store that is moving very slowly, if at all. You sigh and settle in for the wait. In front of you is a harried looking young mother with a baby and preschooler. The preschooler keeps trying to wander away while the baby is sleeping. He wriggles out of Mom’s grasp and starts grabbing candy. When Mom demands he put it back, he throws some on the floor and crams the rest, wrapper and all, in his mouth. He dances out of Mom’s reach and starts looking for more things to grab. She goes after him, pulling him very hard by the arm. He begins to cry. She hits him. Twice. Hard. He cries harder. The baby wakes up and starts crying, too. You see the whole thing. What should you do?

What the Experts Say

“We often witness children suffering in our own world. A tired parent, at the end of a stressful day, stops at the grocery store for dinner items with his cranky child,” says Mimi Doe, M.Ed. and author of Busy But Balanced: Practical and Inspirational Ways to Create a Calmer, Closer Family. “He loses patience and his child suffers. We’d like to speak up, but we hesitate. Is it our business to intervene? And if we do, will we antagonize the parent, putting the child at even greater risk? Or perhaps we are imagining what we thought we saw, and speaking up would only make us look the fool. There seems to be a common assumption in our society that intervening on behalf of a child in a public place is a dangerous thing to do.”

According to Doe, there is a way to offer help without attacking the parent. “‘How could you treat your child like that?’ would elicit a different reaction from ‘It looks like you’re having some difficulty. Is there anything I can do to help you out?'” she says. “Then follow through with specific ways you might help: offer to find groceries, entertain the child for five minutes, give the child a small treat to keep her occupied. A friend of ours always carries stickers and honey sticks in her purse for just this reason. The child is happier from this unexpected gift, and the parent is usually quite grateful.”

Carolyn McHenry, a child protection manager in Hennepin County, Minn., partially agrees with Doe’s suggestions. “It can be helpful to offer support,” she says. “It can give the parent a moment to just step back, out of the immediate situation.” However, in addition to supporting the parent, McHenry advises that you contact the police and perhaps the local social service agency that deals in child protection.

McHenry says that there is no rule of thumb about how a parent who hits their child in public acts in private. “Many parents slap hands and never go further – others do,” she says. “In other words, slapping of hands as an example, in my experience, is not a significant indicator. Slapping around the head and face can be more concerning. If a person witnesses an incident where a child is being harmed, left unattended, being hit in a way that could cause injuries, etc., and it is happening NOW, then in most jurisdictions, law enforcement is the correct action for immediate response.” She suggests calling 911.

Police officer Ron Reier agrees with McHenry. “Call 911,” he says. “Be prepared with a description of the parent, and if you witness abuse in a vehicle, the license number.” 911 operators may have had other complaints about the abusive parent, he adds. And both McHenry and Reier note that the family may be “in the system,” meaning they are already receiving help and/or monitoring from a social service or law enforcement agency.

In any case, they agree it’s critical that you make the call to 911, and you can be anonymous. If you witness something in a store and don’t have a cell phone, ask the cashier or manager to make the call for you.

Personal Experience

Lottie Karns* of Valley Park, Mo. has witnessed abuse multiple times in her professional capacity as a retail manager. Lott says that she always takes action, most often calling 911. “Sometimes I have hoped that the customer would pay with a check so that I can give the information to 911 when I call,” she says.

Pamela Candy* of Columbus, Ohio once heard a parent slap a child while shopping. “I really didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I wasn’t sure I could do anything since I didn’t actually see the abuse – they were in a different aisle. I felt terrible about it, and I have often thought about it.”

Another time, she witnessed the abuse. “I was at an adoptive parents support group meeting, and I saw a mother slap her young child,” she says. “I made sure that the mother saw me and knew that I’d seen it. Later I called our social worker to tell her about it and to see if we could figure out who the woman was. We couldn’t. The social worker said that witnessing a slap wasn’t enough to constitute abuse and that probably nothing could be done about it.”

Child abuse experts might not agree, however. Many would advise Candy to contact 911. “And the younger the child, the more I recommend this,” says McHenry, who notes that hitting or shaking a young child can cause permanent injury or even death. “If a parent has ever witnessed hitting or shaking an infant, call 911 immediately.”

The late Hubert Humphrey once said that the measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. And in our society, children are among the most vulnerable. McHenry couldn’t agree more, though she adds a twist that focuses on personal responsibility. “As bad as it is for a parent to abuse a child … I think it’s almost as bad to witness the abuse and not do anything about it,” she says. “You will feel better if you report what you have seen. And you may make a difference in a child’s life.”

Do You Sometimes Lose Control?

Not everyone who loses control with their child is a bad person. According to Wisconsin therapist Bill Dorn, M.A., L.P., L.M.F.T., a marriage and family therapist who works with abused children and their parents, parents hit when they feel helpless and out of control. “The more skills parents learn, the less likely they are to abuse their children,” Dorn says.

Dorn makes the following suggestions for immediate help:

  • Stop and take long, deep breaths. He notes that when you become out-of-control angry, your heart races and you start to breathe shallowly. You can make a physiological change just by taking deep breaths.
  • Remove yourself briefly from the situation if you can.
  • Have a list of short (not long-term) consequences you can impose when your child’s behaving badly. Choose brief consequences that you can enforce without a power struggle, and enforce them consistently.

Dorn makes the following suggestions for parents who want to permanently change their behavior:

  • Call a family therapist. Parents sometimes fear that by doing this, their child will be taken away. But Dorn says, “The goal of social services is to keep families together. They are reluctant to take children away from their parents.” Dorn says that if the matter were ever to get to social services, “it is a huge plus” that the parent(s) have voluntarily sought help.
  • Try EAP. As part of your benefit package, your employer may offer an Employee Assistance Plan (EAP). This generally includes access to mental health-behavioral resources.
  • Seek help in your community. “No one needs to know that you are going to a parenting class,” Dorn says. Communities, cities and counties offer parenting classes; you can check with schools and local mental health agencies, too. Anger management classes are another option.

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

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