At some point in your life, you are likely to come across information that suggests a child you know is being abused. With over three million reports of child abuse annually in the United States, it is clear that child abuse occurs on a large scale. And child abuse isn’t something that happens only “on the other side of the tracks.” It occurs in all communities—rich or poor, white or nonwhite, rural or urban– no place is immune. In fact, unless you live in a very remote area there is a good chance that a child is being abused in your community right now. So the question is this: what will you do if you find out about it?
While most people say they would report suspicions of child abuse, the reality is quite different. Oftentimes people ignore the warning signs of abuse until it is too late. There are a variety of reasons that otherwise decent people fail to act. Sometimes it is the result of a “don’t rock the boat” mentality that says it’s not our place to get involved in other people’s family matters. While this view seems to be based on a healthy respect for other people’s right to govern their own families, the deeper issue is that people do not want to become a target for reprisal by the child’s parents. Little Johnnie down the street might have bruises on his arms every now and then, but it’s easier to look the other way than to initiate a series of events that might lead to Johnnie being taken from his parents.
This is a rather insidious way of thinking and it contributes to child abuse being vastly underreported. The important thing to remember is this: if a child is potentially being abused in your community, it is your business. Hiding behind the notion that it someone else’s problem is just an excuse for inaction. It has been said that evil is what occurs when good people do nothing, and child abuse is no different. We all have a responsibility to protect the lives of children, and if there is any reason whatsoever to suspect that a child may be in danger we need to act swiftly to mitigate the damage. Five children die from child abuse in the U.S. every single day, and in almost all of those cases a well-timed phone call could have saved the child’s life. We cannot buy into the notion that child abuse is someone else’s problem; it is a community-wide problem that needs a community-wide solution.
The pressure to not report child abuse is ratcheted up even further when we are talking about the child of a family member. While some of us might be willing to pick up the phone to relay our suspicions about the child of a neighbor or casual acquaintance, there is more at stake when it is a child in our own family. The fear of reprisal from the child’s parent becomes that much stronger—if our sister, cousin, or daughter discovers that we reported her boyfriend for abuse, she might figure out we made the report and never let us see her child again. Not only would we be damaging our relationship with the sister, cousin, or daughter forever, but we would be taking the chance that she would shut us out of the child’s life as well.
The typical response to this concern is to stress the fact that child abuse can be reported anonymously. Every state has a toll-free number for people to call and report abuse without having to provide their names. But in many cases there is still the risk that the child’s parent will be able to guess who made the call—so people begin to make excuses to legitimize their inaction. “Maybe those bruises really were from a fall,” you might tell yourself, even though that’s the same excuse your sister gave you the last time and the child insists that it was Mommy’s new husband who did it. We seek out evidence that confirms what we want to believe and ignore all the signs of danger. Meanwhile the child suffers in silence because we don’t want to stir up trouble in the family, we don’t want to be ostracized, and we don’t want to be shut out of these people’s lives.
But we need to stop thinking about ourselves and put the child first. That child’s life should be more important to us than preserving a relationship. And if there is even a 1% chance that the child is being abused, how can we possibly live with ourselves if we stand by and let this occur?
Someone will inevitably come back and say, “But what if we’re wrong? What if we file a report and it turns out the child is not being abused?” They follow this up by saying that unless they’re certain abuse is occurring, they shouldn’t report it. But if everyone thought this way, child abuse would almost never be reported. Think about it—child abusers go to great lengths to hide what they are doing. The overwhelming majority of abusers act in secret, behind closed doors. Thus when information does manage to trickle out, in the form of unexplained injuries or a child who confides in someone the dark details of life at home, we mustn’t sweep these warning signs back under the rug—we must act. It is not our job to investigate the child abuse claim and determine with 100% certainty whether the abuse is occurring—that is the role of social workers and child protection agencies. But these people can’t do their jobs if people like us don’t report warning signs when we see them.
If we at any time have reason to believe a child may have been abused, it is our responsibility to report what we know and let child protection workers take it from there. We cannot absolve our moral responsibility to children by saying it is someone else’s problem, and we cannot turn a blind eye to the signs of abuse in the name of preserving family harmony.
If the child in question is being abused, then that child needs a hero: someone who will act selflessly and do the right thing, whatever the cost. Be that child’s hero. Don’t make excuses or pretend you didn’t hear what you heard or see what you saw.
Pick up the phone, report what you know, and take comfort in knowing you took action to protect the life of a child.