Dear PoP – Child Abuse

Photo from PoPville flickr user fromcaliw/love

“Dear PoP,

I was walking down Irving St. towards Mt. P the other day when I glanced to my right down Hiatt Pl., only to see a woman slapping and punching the head of a young boy (presumably a son/nephew/younger relative?) while yelling at him (in Spanish so I couldn’t figure out what she was saying). I froze. Then I spent an anguished minute staring, trying to figure out what to do. To my shame, I ended up doing nothing and going on my way. No other passers-by seemed to notice or if they did, they didn’t react.

I felt strongly that I should have intervened, but I also felt that if it was a mother/son relationship, maybe it’s none of my business… What would you have done? What should I have done?”

These are the types of questions that will generate very strong reactions but I call these the “battle” questions. You never know how you’re going to react in battle until you are actually in battle. So I seriously don’t judge you for your reaction. This is an extremely difficult situation made more difficult by the fact that there was a language barrier. What I’d like to think I would have done is walk over and say no, firmly (since I don’t speak Spanish either). You may sometimes see a parent smack a child on the behind and if you don’t agree with it, I don’t think that would warrant an intervention. But the situation you describe with the child being hit about the head is completely over the line and dangerous for the child. But honestly, if I went over and said no to the mother, I’m not sure if that would help much. This level of aggression seems like social services might need to get involved. But back to your question, what should a witness do? I have no idea.

Should the police be alerted? Remember we are talking about a young child being hit about the head. What steps could/should be taken in order to best aid the young child?

61 Comment

  • I’m all for saying something. Or at least looking on at the perpetrator with visible disgust. Public shaming I think goes a long way to curbing this behavior. That’s my two cents. My question though is what if a cop witnesses this? Well ok obviously a DC cop wouldn’t do anything. BUT do they have the power to do anything? If they were so inclined to ya know. Go above and beyond what is absolutely required of them in order to receive a paycheck?

    • a “d.c.cop wouldn’t do any thing” i think in years past this may have been a valid statement..?of late i believe many mpd officers would go out of their way to help, especially with the welfare of a child at stake. i say this as someone who has had legitmate issues with specific mpd officers in the past.

    • I am 13 and just a couple months ago i was beaten with a belt in the living room by my step father as my mother cried on the couch and i have to say i secretly hate both my parents ,my mother for just watching and my step father for using his own leather belt but i havent told anyone its like i have no voice no say in what goes on in my life i have no savior cuz i am my own if u see or hear a child being abused and do what i cant do for myself report the parent in my case the father who is the Abuser, but i still care for my mother. They both try to make up for him hitting me with gifts but nothing can heal how i feel about them NOW.

  • Prince Of Petworth

    A twitter reader suggests calling Child and Family Services:

    It still seems complicated because the abuse took place outside and not at a fixed address.

  • Cultural Differences. Let it be.

  • I’ve called 311 and alerted social services to obvious instances of child abuse before. I used to walk my dog past a house in Shaw where I frequently heard/saw an obviously drunk mother-type verbally and physically abusing her (I assume) toddler-age children on a regular basis–yelling, hitting, locking them out of the house, etc. Not sure if it did any good because of the nature of the social work system, but I certainly wasn’t going to confront this woman, and all the 311 operators I spoke to were very helpful and directed me well to the appropriate departments.

    I’d love to know more about what to do in this kind of situation–especially when you don’t have a house number to direct anyone to.

  • I’m spanish so I would of definitely stepped in. I’d give the “death” stare just grab her attention and probably stepped up near her to ask if that was her kid or not.

    My neighbor got her grandkids taken away last week because of her daughters. Both of them were very abusive to the kids and the living conditions were just horrible. Kids would go outside for their bathroom needs.

  • You should definitely have said something – or at least called the police… even if they can’t do anything, it’s at least on the record. I don’t think the police can do much if a parent slaps their child, but you said she punched him – that’s horrible and I’m sure the police would have come and intervened…

  • I don’t think “public shaming” will have much of an effect at all, but all the same this sounds like anti-social behavior that might as well be called out. Just don’t expect to get any satisfaction out of doing so; as far as I can tell most people react badly when someone else points out their bad behavior in public.

  • Just because she was yelling in Spanish doesn’t mean that she wasn’t bilingual. You could have said something in English and then made a judgment call on whether she understood you or not. Either way, you would have gotten her attention.

    • the person who witnessed it didn’t say the mother didn’t speak english – they said they couldn’t understand what the mother was yelling about, which is a fair point. “don’t run in the street in front of cars” is a little different than abusive yelling, for example, although i dont think anything excuses real physical violence. i dont think cultural differences are an excuse; rather, perhaps they don’t realize that those actions are potentially illegal here, where they might not be in another country.

      maybe asking the mother if she needs you to call the police? i assume that would freak her out and maybe get her to reconsider her actions in future.

  • Most of these children don’t get help until hospitalization is required or until the child’s school steps in and the school social worker moves the case forward. it is very unlikely that the police or CPS would respond to this complaint/concern. There are over 1,500 “current or soon to be Benita Jacksons” using up every CPS/MPD/Faith-based Social Service/DCPS Social Service resource across the city.

  • In a situation like this, also consider the indirect effects on the kid. Getting smacked, they’re in an embarrassed, helpless, vulnerable, adrenolin-filled state. Choose your words and actions carefully so that (a) the discussion doesn’t turn toward whatever the kid just did; (b) the discussion doesn’t get personal toward the smacking adult — whom the kid probably looks up to and depends on; (c) the adult won’t take a public shaming out on the kid later.

    You can ask the adult, “Are you alright?” It is pretty unobjectionable and deescalatory. It offers connection in a bad time. Probably it holds up a mirror to the adult and causes them to stop smacking, grumble, and carry on.

    If you are worried about the physical safety of the kid, then intervene by all means. But with so many indirect effects possible from a loaded situation, tread carefully.

    • I think this is by far the most thoughtful and effective advice offered here. I don’t think chastising the adult for hitting the kid is going to result in anything postive. That kind of negative response would probably cause the adult to become defensive and have exactly the type of reaction Monkey Daddy talks about.

  • Honestly, some of this has a lot to do with cultural differences. What many (not all) Latin mothers see as normal discipline, many Americans see it as too rough. I’m sorry, it’s just the way it is. And I speak from experience being Latino and having firm disciplinarian Parents.

    I will say if this woman was hitting the child with a closed fist, that’s quite abusive. But like the other person said, one really has to see the context of the situation before we can really judge this woman. Who knows what the child just did.

  • If you saw an adult hitting another adult, what would you do? Call the police! Why is it any different?

    • I agree. I called the police when I saw one man kicking and punching an unconscious man. A police car, ambulance and fire truck responded (although the fire truck came first and the man doing the beating left the scene immediately, ugh). Why shouldn’t I do that if it’s a mother and child?

    • Finally a voice of reason.

  • i can emphasize with your difficulty in gauging the correct reaction. every time i walk past a certain house/storefront on Park and Hiatt there seems to be a a group of adult men and women and several toddler-aged children sitting outside. while there is no physical abuse present, there is always yelling (directed at children), smoking, and drinking directly next to the children. the children are outside as late as midnight, and i just have to wonder what goes on inside if this is how they are treated outside and in public. i have actually been yelled at and chased by a female adult when caught staring at this behavior. it rattled me up and made me even more unsure how to react to the situation in the future. its sad, and a tough situation to be in.

  • I agree with Monkey Daddy, etc. … I work in the area of child protection (though not for CFSA or any other government agency) and it’s very true that when this type of situation comes up, most people have the good intention of saying/doing something to protect the child. Correct me if I’m wrong (esp. SW who posted above), but police are most likely mandatory reporters of child abuse. I’m guessing the action they take hinges on whether the officer sees something like this will determine that what s/he saw is ‘child abuse’.

    Monkey Daddy is right though, a comment being made or action being taken could then result in more harm being visited upon the child. I think the comment about cultural differences is a valid one but legally and within the context of the child abuse/neglect system those differences don’t really mean much.

    Also consider the fact that if this had played out with the police and CFSA getting involved, the current default position for the agency is to remove first, then re-unite later, possibly after court involvement depending on the circumstances. Making this type of call sets in motion a whole chain of events that can separate kids and caregivers for months or years. Both this result and the possibility of ongoing abuse are very serious. This is a tough one.

  • Why would you delete my post? Not PC enough for you!

    I’ll say it again, without context, you have no idea what was going on. Smacking a kid because his shoe wasn’t tied – excessive, smacking the kid because he stole – appropriate.

    Asking POP “what to do” in situations where you can’t accurately interpret the context of the situation – unfortunate. Asking POP “what to do” in situations where common sense should prevail – awesome.

    • +1

      Getting physical with a kid is not child abuse, and in this circumstance we don’t know the context. At the risk of stereotyping Latinos, I would say they are fantastic parents and keep their kids in line.

      Putting the fear of physical punishment is probably what is needed to clean up some of these streets. Give the parents the benifit of the doubt!

  • As a social worker who used to work at CFSA in DC, I absolutely encourage you to call the police, especially in a situation where there is no physical address to report. If police are able to respond to this, they will be able to arrange for CFSA to follow-up. The information provided by police and any witnesses will help CFSA to determine if a full investigation is necessary, and from there arrange the propper course of action. Actions range from unsubstantiated alligations that are screened out (ie it is determined that no abuse/neglect occured and the case is closed), follow-up services for the family such as parenting education and preventative services, to actual removal of children who have been victims of abuse and neglect.

    I often think the grey area of “what should I do when I see something like this?” is hard for most people, and people don’t want to tell other people how to parent. But if this scene made you stop in your tracks and contemplate on how to react, then by all means follow your gut and do something. As cliche as it may seem, if adults are treating children in what may appear to be abusive or neglectful ways in public, then chances are reactions behind closed doors are much worse. Children in abusive and neglectful homes may have very few advocates on their side who are willing to step up to their abuser. People who report abuse and neglect have the power to greater change the trajerctory of a child’s life. I can’t tell you how many times a case was be investiaged of a child with a very serious injury (brain damage, internal bleeding/bruises, severe malnutrition), only to find out that there had been numerous people that had suspected something more minor years or months prior to the event, but hesitated because they didn’t want to stick there nose in someone else’s business. If something is reported and there really is no abuse/neglect happening, the case gets dropped. If you call and it’s determinded that a case should be opened, chances are you’ve helped to save a life, either figuratively or literally.

    Yes, CFSA isn’t perfect and it’s an overworked system. Yes, it’s hard to call out another person. But please consider the positive impact that you could make. At any given time, there are 3000 children in out-of-home care due to abuse and neglect in DC alone. Of course the ideal is not to remove kids from there home, but obviously it’s necessary when it’s in the child’s best interest. To report child abuse and neglect directly, the number in DC is 202-671-HOPE.

  • I’m very glad this has been brought up. When doing work around my house, I often hear my next door neighbor shouting at his children inside their house. I’ve never heard slapping nor seen any evidence of physical abuse, but man does the guy have a temper. (I might too if I was raising 5 kids.) Anyway, he is a nice guy in as much as we get along as neighbors (he’ll borrow my week wacker, I’ll mow the grass in front of his house out by the curb). So, these comments are good food for thought. Again, he’s a nice guy and he’s my neighbor, but I hear his temper I bit too often. Good reading.

  • As a society, do we give mothers a pass where we’d obviously call the cops if it was a father?

    I’m asking, not accusing anyone.

  • Anytime an adult is punching a child in the face or head area, it warrants intervention. In this case, police intervention if for no other reason than to have it on the record. This would also presumably trigger action on behalf of child welfare. If this is occuring in public, can you imagine what happens to that child in the privacy of their home?

    • This was my concern as well, considering the public shaming/stinkeye approach that some people suggested (which I’m not saying is definitely a bad idea). If it succeeds, is is just going to move the abuse behind closed doors where there are no witnesses? And then how much worse is it going to get? It’s not quite the same as publicly shaming someone for littering or not picking up after their dog.

      And to those who say that smacking a kid is appropriate punishment in some circumstances, this wasn’t just a smack on the butt because the kid ran into the street. She described it as repeated punching and slapping. You can’t put this down to cultural differences; that’s physical abuse, full stop.

      Finally, there are much more effective ways to discipline your child without resorting to spanking or beating. Sure, it’ll get your kid’s attention in the moment, but it also teaches that physical violence is acceptable. And I do have a kid, for the record, so I’m not just talking theoretically about something about which I know nothing.

  • I am the last person to make this sort of suggestion, as I do not have a cell phone.
    Most of you now have camera phones, etc.
    Take a picture of the perpetrator and the victim. Let the perpetrator know you are doing this with the statement that you are going to or already have alerted the authorities.
    By all means alert the authorities.
    Remember, ALL children are victims. They are defenseless.
    My mother abused me. I hate her every day of my life. She’s been dead for 10 years and my hatred for her does not abate.
    Such is the nature of abuse.

  • Growing up in the South, when I disobeyed my parents, I got a azz whipping. It was called correcting the child. My parents used a leather barber’s strap or they would use my belt on my behind. Yeah, there are times when parents go overboard, but those whippings I recieved got my attention of who was boss!! My mother did not hesitate to tell the folk in the neighborhood if I were seen doing something wrong, they had had permission, then once home I got it again. But then that was over 45 years ago, times have changed.

  • i saw a mother walking by my house once with 2 kids, probably 7 and 10 years old. the young brother was in tears and the mother was telling the younger kid to punch his older brother, i assume b/c the older brother had done something to the young brother. in their world violence is the answer. no wonder there are so many shootings and stabbings.

    • bfinpetworth

      Who is this “they” you are referring to when you say “their world?” Very broad brush that I suspect has some racial undertone. But maybe I’m wrong about that.

      When I was about 4, I remember trying to take a hunk out of my sister’s back for no reason. My mother’s solution was to methodically take my arm and bite me back. Not too hard, but enough to teach me a lesson. I never bit anyone again.

      Just making the point that not all people who advocate this sort of eye for an eye punishment see violence as the answer. I know my mother didn’t.

  • What’s always troubling in these situations is that if the adult feels comfortable doing this in public, what is going on behind closed doors and how often? I’m not sure I buy the cultural difference argument as it relates to public displays of physical abuse. It is a rarity to see this kind of ‘discipline’ out in public whether the parent is Latino, Asian, European, etc.

    I agree with the logic that if we saw an adult doing this to another adult, we would act. The same should hold true for children.

  • I think we shouldn’t just assume the adult in these situations is the parent (and thus avoid intervening), but treat the abuse as if it were a stranger attacking a child. While it may appear to be parental discipline, there could be any number of relationship structures that could be at play, and as others have pointed out, the child is defenseless in the absence of our intervention. It reminds me of the Tennessee woman who sent the 7 year-old orphan back to Russia, unattended on an airplane – obviously not a normal parental relationship involved.

  • bfinpetworth

    I once heard a commotion on my street and went out to see what was up. A young man was following a young woman and screaming at her and trying to take the baby out of her arms. The woman and baby were crying. I watched briefly to try to understand what was going on, and then stepped toward them and simply asked if everything was ok? I didn’t accuse but I think I made it clear that I was watching and the behaviour should stop. They wandered down the street and I went inside to call the police. I don’t know what happened after that but I felt better taking SOME kind of affirmative action.

    In another situation, some kids on the metro were actively harrassing me about how I dress. A woman in front called them rude, and they started getting in her face. It was a very stressful situation for everyone on the train. I stood up and moved to the front of the train and a guy near the woman sat next to her to try to get them to back down. Then the woman screamed that one of the kids put gum in her hair. What a mess that scene was. I was afraid by this time. To set the stage, we were white, the kids were all african american. An older african american man then stepped in to the situation and commanded that the kids sit down and shut up. They did! We all got off the train at the next stop and reported the incident to the metro police. But without that man stepping in, I’m not sure what might have happened on that train. The point being that sometimes stepping up can help, sometimes it can exacerbate the situation. In this case, I believe that the man being black made it easier for the kids to listen to him and back off. Maybe I’m wrong…

  • I wish someone had called the cops on my mother back in the day. There’s discipline, and there’s abuse. Sometimes it starts as the one but then very easily turns into the other when the mother is stressed and lacking in self-control skills.

    just because a woman gives birth doesn’t mean that any psychological problems she have are automatically cured – women shouldn’t be just given a “pass” just because there’s an assumption of some sort of sanctified motherhood exemption

  • Please call the police.

    As the child of an abusive father, I always wished someone, anyone would call the police. I KNOW our neighbors could hear it when my father threw things, hit us, etc but no one ever called the police. It made me feel very alone and very hopeless about our situation. Sometimes, kids just need to know that what their parents are doing to them isn’t right and that other adults care.

    I never believed that the behavior would stop if the police came, and the one time someone from church came by to talk about his behavior it got far worse, but at least I knew someone out there cared. And when counting down the days until 18 seemed like a daunting “its never going to get here” date, knowing that someone out there cared got me through.

    • Thanks so much for posting this. I think you just made the strongest argument possible for getting involved. And I will do so in the future, if I ever see such an unfortunate incident.

  • Call 911 and let the police settle it.

    • Agreed. Unless you think the child is likely to be seriously injured or killed – then I’d hope any decent, able bodied person would step in. Call 911, report it as an assault in progress, indicate if a weapon [anything in the mothers hand being used to strike the child] is being used. Give the 911 call-taker a good physical description of the mother, what she’s wearing and direction of travel. If you feel safe staying on the phone and following from a safe distance, do so. If you don’t see MPD in few minutes call 911 back and ask for a communications supervisor and make sure the call was dispatched right. A lot of the 911 dispatchers here will misclassify these calls as a family dispute or something else non-serious. Even if MPD does talk to mother there’s no guarantee anything will be done, but at least the mother will know someone in the community is watching and disapproves of her behavior.

  • Has anyone on the site ever get a beating/spanking when they were kids? That is the dividing line! It seens to me that if you were spanked as a child, seeing someone smack a kid in public is abuse. I was spanked as a child and see no problem with it. Some people believe that it is never OK to hit a child. I have a great relationship my mother.

    • I was spanked as a kid, my sister less so. It was discipline as a result of really bad behavior (playing with fire) and not used that often. Mom did the spanking as did babysitters and other female relatives. Oh and my last spaking was in middle school for talking in class by teacher who really wasn’t trying to cause any pain, just going through the motions. Always the butt never the head.
      I understand that physical discipline is way out of vogue and I’ve seen the time out in action, so that it is a better option in some cases. But the TO also means time out for the adult as well which is no fun when you’re stuck in a car with a screaming 4 year old who has to take time out for being bad.

  • I am a latina who grew up in Adams Morgan and spent many summers in Cape Cod, MA. My friends with ‘white’ parents were abused much more violently than my latin friends here. Here, there were more slaps on the head (not face)and yelling. There I saw actual beatings from parents. But then there was more openly alcoholic youths there than here, so I guess that is how the kids coped with it.

    • so all ‘whites’ are alcoholics? how about a little tolerance for the diversity of the neighborhood.

  • some kids need to be smacked in the head before they grow up to be a violent teenager. it’s called discipline. it’s sadly lacking amongst a lot of dc parents.

  • Please say something and definitely call the police. I think a big part of the reason why crime and other acts against human decency is such a problem in DC is because folks accept it as a “normal” or altogether ignore it because it is “not their problem.” People need to do the right thing and speak up and confront people doing the wrong thing (exceptions being when it could put someone in a dangerous situation). Use your cell phone – take pictures, take videos, text it to the cops, call the cops, post it on PoP, etc, etc. SILENCE IS ACCEPTANCE.

  • It’s a head, and inside, there is a brain. Hitting a head means hitting a brain, and that’s not the same as spanking.

    Seems pretty clear to me. Feel free to say something, anything really to interrupt the dynamic, and call the police.

  • Hello, I work for Safe Shores – The DC Children’s Advocacy Center. We work with child victims of abuse. If you suspect child abuse in DC, call 202-671-SAFE (7233). It’s the child abuse hotline and the best way to get a response.

  • Ok, this is going to be controversial, but how I feel. I am white. On more than one occassion, I have seen black mothers hit their children, shame them, and call them names I wouldn’t call my worst enemy. My first reaction is a dirty, shocked look, but they don’t seem bothered by the public attention. I want to say something so badly, but yes, I am afraid of angry black women. There. I said it.

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