What to do if you witness a child who might be in danger
Q: I live in a complex that has a lot of families in it. There are always kids playing outside. All of them are sweet and polite, and I love seeing them, but I rarely see parents.
This weekend, I finally met one of the parents. She came outside with her boy, calling him names, cursing at him, and then he ran away to play with the other kids. She was completely wasted at 10 a.m. on a Saturday. The looks on the kids' faces, too, were just heartbreaking.
What do I do? My heart aches every time I see one of those children, and I want so much to FIX it, though I know I can't, so I'd settle for helping, but I'm at a loss. Is this something you call the authorities for?
A: When it's that bad, yes, it is. I realize there is a sense of crossing a Rubicon when calling the police or child-protective services on a parent — of putting them in "the system," of possibly doing more harm than good. I also understand why this sense is often enough to keep people from making the call.
At the same time, if these kids are in crisis, then it's every witness' duty to speak up.
That's why I recommend Childhelp so often in this space. It's a nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of child abuse, and it has a toll-free hotline — 1-800-422-4453 (4A-CHILD) — that you can call. The hotline staff can bring three things that are critical in these situations: calm, expertise and followup questions that get at the context of what you witnessed. Share the decision about what to do with someone who is available in the moment to help you make it.