While the videotape of a mother beating her 4-year-old daughter plays over and over on TV newscasts, experts on child abuse are urging the American public to be bolder and wiser in helping prevent such incidents before they occur.
Bystanders observing a parent on the verge of physical abuse should be ready to intervene _ with a sympathetic comment rather than a rebuke, experts say. They advise friends and neighbors to report any serious suspicions of abuse, even without firm proof.
“You don’t have to know for certain that abuse is occurring _ you just have to have a suspicion, and what you’re doing is asking someone to go out and check,” said Chris Monaco, executive director of Childhelp USA’s National Child Abuse Hotline.
“We stress this point to our callers – ‘If you don’t do it, who will?”’ Monaco said. “You may be the only person in this child’s life who can make a difference right now.”
Madelyne Gorman Toogood, the mother who admitted hitting her daughter last week in Indiana, was identified by authorities because her actions were recorded on a department store’s surveillance videotape.
Even though more than 3.2 million cases of child abuse and neglect are reported in the United States each year, up from 2.4 million in 1989, police and child-welfare advocates believe most abuse goes unreported.
“There’s still a tremendous amount of hesitancy to report, of not wanting to get involved,” said Detective Howard Black, who heads a domestic violence response team with the Colorado Springs, Colo., police department.
“It’s a complicated area,” he said. “But whenever folks are in doubt, we strongly encourage them to call police or Child Protective Services, and to err on the side of the safety of children.”
Kevin Kirkpatrick of Prevent Child Abuse America said his Chicago-based advocacy group has been encouraging people to be proactive in dealing with abuse.
“People tend to think that reporting is the only thing they can do in these of cases, and there’s evidence that the public believes reporting is a fruitless exercise,” he said.
“Our focus is to educate people about what they can do to prevent abuse before it gets so bad they have to report it.”
Kirkpatrick’s group says people observing potential child abuse in a public place might be able to help by engaging the parent in friendly conversation – “You seem to have your hands full. Can I help?” or “My child sometimes get upset like that, too.”
Compliments, as well as sympathy, can ease a tense moment, Kirkpatrick said, but criticism and dirty looks should be avoided.
“It only increases the stress on the parent, and in fact can make things worse,” he said. “If you observe a parent truly on the verge of becoming violent, going to the appropriate authorities is the best thing.”
If someone worried about possible abuse is reluctant to call police, and skeptical that child-welfare agencies will respond, there are other options. Prevent Child Abuse America suggests notifying a child’s school counselor or church leader.
Some advocacy groups believe child abuse can be combatted effectively by getting broad sectors of a community involved.
Christine Deyss, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse New York, described local “Promises for Parents” campaigns in which townspeople make specific pledges to support parents.
A shopkeeper might set up a toy-equipped play area so parents can browse through the merchandise in peace, Deyss said; a schoolteacher might decide to contact parents regularly with praise for their child, rather than calling only when trouble occurs.
“It’s a lot of small steps,” Deyss said from her office in Albany, N.Y. “It’s trying to change the way we think about parents and children. We all have a responsibility to help as best we can with what can be a very trying, stressful job.”