Every year, Americans make more than three million reports of suspected child abuse. What constitutes abuse, and how can you become a child’s advocate?
The woman standing in front of you in the supermarket checkout lane is trying to unload her groceries while calming the frantic screams of her toddler. Suddenly, the child reaches out, grabs a candy bar from the rack, and squeezes it with all her might. The mother gives her child a swift slap across the face.
Is this simply a harried mother at the end of a long, stressful day, or a serial child abuser? A bystander watching this scenario might find it difficult to tell and may not know how to respond. But an even more obvious situation can leave the observer unsure of how to react.
Deb Polley was working as a flight attendant several years ago when she had a layover at a Portland, Oregon hotel. “I was in bed, just about to go to sleep, when in the room next door I heard these thrashing, banging sounds,” she recalls. “Then I would hear this heart-wrenching, ‘Please — no Daddy, please Daddy stop!'”
Her first thought was, “It’s none of my business.”
But when the sounds did not stop, she finally decided to take action and call hotel security. After security arrived, the room next door grew quiet. Polley remains haunted by the memory of that night—and still wonders what became of that child.
Every year, Americans make around three million reports of suspected child abuse to child protective service agencies, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services. But experts say that the actual number of abuse cases could be as much as three times higher than the number reported.
Why do so many people fail to call for help? One problem is that they are often close to the family involved. “Is it uncomfortable to call child protective services? It is horrible, because we’re so enmeshed in not wanting to turn someone in, not wanting to ruin a friendship,” says Dr. Sherryll Kraizer, PhD, executive director of the Coalition for Children, and author of The Safe Child Book: A Commonsense Approach to Protecting Children and Teaching Children to Protect Themselves. “But you have to make the call as an advocate for that child.”
Angela Hoy did make the call—on one of her own family members. She took action after an incident involving her mother-in-law and her then seven-year-old daughter.
“I knew something was up when I returned home from work and my mother-in-law practically ran out the door,” she recalls. Her daughter told her that her grandmother had choked her and pulled her off the counter. The incident had left a huge scrape down the length of her leg. Angela quickly called child protective services. They investigated and promptly removed the children’s grandmother from the home.
“The family despised me for that, but taking action sent a strong message to my children: no matter how close the relative is, abuse is not acceptable and is illegal,” she says.