In one of those “kids say the darnedest things moments” when they spill the family secrets, a neighbor’s son told me “my parents always say that if it happens outside my door, I don’t need to get involved”. I wanted to ask if his parents explained what kind of things he shouldn't be involved in – was it the argument overheard next door or the cry for help from a stranger? In the end, I decided not to question the youngster.
How much do we involve ourselves in the lives of others? And where do we draw the line?
What would you do if you knew a child was in trouble and possibly being abused by one of the adults she yearns to trust? There are some people who, by the nature of their jobs, are legally required to report all suspected child abuse such as teachers, doctors, police officers, and child care providers to name just a few. Any adult who lives with the child who has been abused is also legally required to report the situation although all too often these people are either involved in the abuse or complicity denying the existence.
What about the rest of us, what is our moral obligation to report when we've seen a child in distress with repeated and multiple bruises, or worse?
We need to learn to recognize the signs of abuse and not deny that it might be happening. Severe injuries, multiple bruises from obviously different occasions, fear at the idea of going home, a lack of medical care for illness or injury, detailed tales of sexual activity, consistently unkempt appearance, or frequent and constant hunger MAY be signs we should pay attention to. If a child comes to you with a blatant cry for help and story of an abusive situation, it shouldn’t be discounted without consideration. And as the parent of a child who once screamed for help standing at her bedroom window when she was angry for being sent to her room for a time-out, I am aware that sometimes things CAN be misunderstood.
If we must err though, we should err on the side of the child’s safety. Child protective agencies exist in every region and depending on the size of your municipality maybe even in your city. If you suspect the possibility of child abuse contacting them may very well be the first step in saving a child’s life. The staff at these offices are trained to determine if the information you provide is enough to warrant a more thorough investigation so they will ask you questions such as what you witnessed, if you've seen former evidence, and how well you know the people involved (to assess your vantage point). Your name will be kept out of it if they decide to investigate so you shouldn't worry about repercussions. Unless it can be proven that you maliciously reported a false case, you are immune to any consequences. Cases will be investigated and any actions taken will be done in the best interests of the child.
When I researched information for my novel Bartlett’s Rule, I came across survivors of childhood abuse and one of the things repeatedly stated was why people who knew didn't do anything to help. Physical and emotional scars never go away. Children are vulnerable and often not able to speak up and explain what is happening to them – but if we suspect abuse, we should do something to help. It's the right thing.