When should you intervene in family violence?

The New York Times recently reported on an incident where a child was being dragged around a supermarket by her hair, and whether or not a bystander should intervene when they see a child being disciplined in public.  This article notes that the original Facebook post about the incident had, at the time of the article, been shared more than 242,000 times.

Unfortunately, issues of family violence do not have easy answers.  A habitual abuser does not stop abusing their victim simply because a stranger points out the error of their ways.  The article has some helpful information from experts on the issue.

If you want to read the original article, click where it says 'Click Here' below.

What happened in this incident?

There are a couple of things you should note from this incident:

  • The woman spoke to the man three times, i.e. he didn't respond by stopping, at least not initially
  • The man's response was "I grew up just fine", i.e. there is nothing wrong with what I am doing
  • The woman called 911
  • A police officer was there within minutes because he happened to already be in that store
  • The police note that the parent let go of the child's hair 'pretty quickly', which suggests that he didn't let go until the police officer turned up
  • The police and child protective services are now intervening on behalf of the child

This an awful situation but because of the government intervention she had a good outcome.

I want you to imagine a different situation.  You intervene, the adult still insists that they have done nothing wrong, and either you do not call the police, or you call them but they do not arrive quickly enough and the parent and the child have left.  You have no way to identify the parent, and the police have no way to intervene on behalf of the child.

Do you think it is likely that this adult will cease their behaviour based upon your interaction with them?  

Do you think there is a risk the adult will be angry or embarrassed, and take that out on the child?

In the article it notes that people have contacted this woman to indicate that she should have minded her own business.  There are people out there who, despite the media generated by incidents like this, believe that this is a correct response to a child's behaviour.

As I said, unfortunately this situation doesn't have easy answers.

What do the experts say?

One of the experts in the article is asked whether parents should call 911.  He points out that "If someone is being abusive to a child in public, just imagine what happens behind closed doors".

Other experts point out that the parent might be frustrated or having a bad day, and not necessarily be abusive (note: not this particular parent everyone agreed that this was not an appropriate response, but in response to the question whether a person should generally call the police when they see a child being harshly disciplined by a parent in public).

The first question to ask yourself is, is it possible that this parent is just having a very bad day, or the child is having a very bad day, or the child is trying to do something that would endanger the child and the parent is trying to restrain them?

How should I intervene?

In the article an expert recommends that if you are going to intervene, you should avoid being angry, stern or confrontational.  You need to speak in an even and soft tone, asking polite questions and seeing if you can help.

Anger breeds anger.  Regardless of the reason for what you are observing, assume that the abuser and the victim are in a heightened emotional state.  You need to be the opposite of that.

The article suggests trying to help, ask the parent if you can help, can you talk to or redirect the child, think about what you are going to do or say before you do it.

Some other suggested approaches are in the article, even if you need to intervene and say that the behaviour is inappropriate think about how you will say that before you do it.  "Hey stop that!"  is probably unlikely to get a positive calm response.

What if the child is truly being assaulted?

Is it possible that the parent is acting to protect the child from itself, or to protect another child?  For instance, is the child trying to run on the road or run away?  Is the child trying to play with a dangerous implement (scissors or a knife)?  Is the child trying to injure another child?  Is the child trying to climb on something it is not safe to climb on?

If the child is truly being hurt or assaulted and is in danger of injury, and there doesn't appear to be a reasonable explanation, then if you are going to intervene bear in mind that if you intervene you can only stop the current incident that you are watching.  If the family violence is so habitual that it is happening in public then you can assume that worse incidents are happening at home.

If you are in a shopping centre, would it be more effective to try and get a security guard or police officer who can take ongoing action (forcing the parent to provide identification with the goal of arranging for some form of government intervention) that you may be unable to take.

If you are at a school or day care centre is there a staff member who might be able to identify the parent, can you draw their attention to the incident?  They are mandatory reporters, but if the incident is occurring in the car park they probably aren't aware of it.

You cannot simply take the child with you.  The adult would be entitled to treat you as a kidnapper, you will possibly suffer serious injury and the child will still be in danger.  Remember even abusers love their children and will be protective over them.  If you try to restrain the adult or hold them for the purposes of identification then again, you put yourself at risk of serious injury.  If the child remains with the adult they are still in danger and you have made an emotional situation even more emotional.

If you are in public, you have no way to identify the parent, and you cannot get a police officer or security guard there quickly enough then you will just have to use your best judgement.  Unfortunately, as I said at the beginning of the article, these issues do not have nice easy answers.  Regardless of how you choose to respond, remember that endangering yourself doesn't help anyone, and remember that a calm measured response from you will be best for the child.