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“I think that might be child abuse. What do I do?”

4 things you can do to help prevent abuse and neglect

By Trevor Storrs, Executive Director, Alaska Children’s Trust

Most of us have observed an interaction between a child and a parent that leaves an uneasy feeling in your stomach. It was on the line of being potentially abusive. I was faced with such a situation not that long ago. I was at the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon when I witnessed a dad at his wits end and his son who was struggling. The situation was escalating and I was getting that uneasy feeling in my stomach. What do you do?

Each year, thousands of Alaska children experience or are at risk of experiencing child abuse and neglect. It cannot simply be removed with one swift action or policy. Rather, it is the accumulation of individual decisions, moments, and actions that can truly prevent child abuse and neglect.

As a witness of these potentially negative interactions between a child and a parent, we have the opportunity to be an active – versus passive – bystander. Our culture has conditioned us to believe that it is not our business, nor our responsibility, to intervene between a parent and their child. Many times, this culture is correct. But when we witness both the parent and the child struggling, and when this struggle seems to be leading to potential abuse or neglect, it is our responsibility to extend a helping hand – just as we would offer assistance when witnessing an accident.

In recognition of Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, here are four ways you can be an active bystander and help prevent child abuse and neglect.

  1. One of the easiest things you can do is distract. In general, no parent wants to abuse or neglect his or her child. Usually, several stressors have mounted over time and the current situation is the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.” A distraction could be asking the adult in the store if they know where a product is located. Or compliment the parent on how cute his or her child is. Or do something silly that gets both parent and child to smile at you.
  1. Another technique is to delegate. Find others, such as a friend, staff member or other witness, who could help you intervene in the situation. You could speak to the parent as the other individual checks on the child. The more people intervening, the greater the impact.
  1. Sometimes you must delay your intervention. For many reasons, you may not be able to do something right in the moment. You may feel unsafe or you are unsure whether or not the situation requires intervention. You may just want to check in with the child later, if possible, or monitor from a far.
  1. The next technique is direct intervention. This involves stepping in and addressing the situation directly. Deciding when to intervene in a public space requires a quick calculation on the degree of risk. If safe, directly address the situation without being confrontational. This is important because most people become defensive when confronted. Instead, validate the parent’s stress and just offer them some help. You could say something like, “Kids can be really difficult. Is there anything I can do to help?”

No matter which intervention technique you utilize, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect. It can vary depending on the type of abuse or neglect. Check out www.reportchildabuse.alaska.gov for more information. And finally, if you suspect child abuse and neglect, call local authorities or make a report to the Office of Children’s Services (OCS).

That day in the grocery store, I realized my uneasiness was not just caused by what I was witnessing but it was also the natural fear of being an active bystander. Then I remembered a quote by Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Being an active bystander usually only takes a quick moment of one’s time and is a responsibility we all have as community members. So, I reached for an item that was next to the dad and commented on how cute his son was and how fun it can be to have kids – all done with a smile. The father and I shared a little laughter and you could feel the mood change in the air. If more of us become active bystanders, together we can prevent child abuse and neglect.

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