If I see “abuse,” should I report it?

Via on Jan 26, 2010

The below contemplation was provoked or inspired by my friend Gwen Bell’s recent, deeply personal post re: abuse and witnessing a clearly abusive situation in an airport, and her decision to report that family to the authorities. Click over to her post for a list of resources.

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If we see what we believe to be an abusive situation, should we report it to the authorities?

It’s a tough question. My dad was abused, and his dad before him, and his dad before him…and I’ve worked all my life, as have all the men in my family, to undo a learned reaction to frustration, anger, etc.

I won’t get married until I’ve mastered my inability to breathe through frustration.

That said, what we see in grocery stores, airports, cafes etc, is not always what we think we see.

1. If we see abuse, there’s a great tendency to ignore, as Gwen so touchingly notes. It’s easier to move along.

2. If we see abuse, we may only think we see abuse. It is, of course, possible to discipline without being abusive or losing one’s temper.

A year ago I was in a pet store, my dog Redford peed on a bag, and I shouted no! (several times) and slapped him (once) on the nose. The staff person behind the counter, not having seen what happened, but having only heard my (loud) voice in that (small) pet store, considered that I was abusive, and later, via email, threatened to separate me from my dog. While I appreciate her concern for my dog, I’m grateful she decided to communicate with me, and the owners of the pet shop, instead of the authorities. Her communication enabled us all to talk and come to more clarity about what had, and had not, happened.

Many of my friends who are parents complain about having to ‘act’ differently with their children in public for fear that the public will judge or intervene.

Generally, reporting something we’ve witnessed to the authorities first is not ideal. It puts things in a legal rather than human sphere.

If possible, I would first directly address the person you suspect of being abusive. If said interaction is not fruitful, then the next step is to report what you think you saw to the authorities. Having the courage to connect—instead of ignore—is wonderful and vital.

That said, if what we see is clearly abusive, as in my friend Gwen’s case, I do agree with her decision to report what we see to “the authorities.”

It’s complicated. Abuse can be in the eye of the beholder, influenced by our own histories and relationship with aggression. In any case, what we do—or do not do—will effect our human brothers and sisters in a powerful, lasting way.

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5 Responses to “If I see “abuse,” should I report it?”

  1. Abigail
    Here is the dilemma. If children are taken from abusive parents and put into foster care, it's sometimes even worse.

    Valerie
    Always speak up, always. If you're wrong you're simply wrong, if you're right you could have just saved a life.. or many.
    People that turn their head away from abuse are allowing it to happen, there's no getting away from that and even though we all have different levels of acceptance, there are some things that are simply not ok. Like throwing … See Moreyour children around an airport, there's never a reason that that's ok. the cops would have been called if it was an adult doing that to another adult, why would we consider it ok to do that to KIDS?

    Glad she spoke up, I would have, too. Don't get me started on what I will and will not say to people I see smacking their dogs on the nose…. ;)

    Trine
    it doesn't always work out as we hope….as a teacher's asst. , with the director's support, I reported ongoing abuse of a young girl. The appropriate authorities went to the house, confirmed probable abuse (multiple bruises of different stages) but not BAD ENOUGH to "do anything". We never saw the girl at the school again (possibly her only … See Morehaven)….got a verbal lashing from the mother….however at least the documentation started….this was 25 years ago….hadn't thought about this in a long time…I hope the girl is a happy healthy young woman now

    Bethany
    speaking from personal experience, anyone who has concerns about reports leading to a child being taken away, hear this: if a child is being abused at home, you KNOW the child will be abused in the future- it will NOT just stop. In the foster system there is a chance the child will be abused- only a chance… one path has hope, the other does not… See More… plus, often the parents will take classes and learn better mays of being in the world so that they can become good parents and EARN their children's trust back again as well as custody- and that is the happiest of endings…

    elephantjournal.com
    Valerie, my dear friend: As I said in the above article, I grew up in a household that experienced some tough stuff. So I feel more than most perhaps a personal passion for ending abuse, and I aim to live that passion day to day.

    That said, there's always a middle ground between extremes. Roughing up your child in an airport? Yes, we should intervene personally first and if that's not received well then, case by case, we should perhaps take what we saw to the authorities, knowing that said report will break apart a family and that we'd better be clear on what we saw.

    If you're wrong, Valerie, you're not "just wrong": you've sent a family into a legal system that will break it apart and never let it go. That's a grave responsibility—you better be sure what you saw.

    But smacking a dog on the nose, without intent to hurt? There is such thing as firm, but gentle discipline that does not hurt but sends a clear message: don't pee indoors, for example! Red and I walked out of that pet shop at peace with one another, it was a momentary correction and the owners know me and my dog well and backed me up. Thank god.

    The hyper-liberal notion that rewards and "yes" is all a dog, or child for that matter, needs to hear, ever, is an extreme. It's about compassion vs. aggression, as seen in the Buddhist four karmas. It's about intent and action of said intent.

  2. CeCe says:

    As a therapist & mandated reporter, by law I must report any suspected child abuse. Let me first say that it always breaks my heart when a child is taken out of the home, but that most counties will only take a child into custody as a last resort. A good social worker will always try and work with a family to change patterns if possible. And don't forget; though abuse can run through any family, there are cultural components as well. Many of us in the field understand that what is defined as abuse may be acceptable historically or culturally for a family, though still against the law. I have been lucky enough to work with social workers and courts who will do anything they can to try and keep a child with their bio-parents. This isn't always the case, but in my experience it is the norm.

  3. Animal lover says:

    Please inform the correct animal rescue that there is a elephant thats been traped in a small cage since 1974 and it is located in the manilla zoo in the phillipines, I read that it has gone mad from the abuse and just walks in circles all day as it has been traped in a cage since then.

  4. [...] If you are a parent who struggles with your anger, ask for help. If you were abused and are concerned about passing the legacy on to your own children, ask for help. If you suspect children you know are in an abusive situation, get help. [...]

  5. [...] It wasn’t until 2001, that I was finally able to formally report my childhood abuser. By then, I was depressed. I couldn’t focus, and had a hard time even functioning in my everyday living. But, in spite of my weakness, I found my strength. I even called my abuser to let him know that I had reported him to the authorities. He may have stolen my voice when I was just a very small child, but I am the one who found it again. [...]

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