January 27, 2010

If I see “abuse,” should I report it?

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.

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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