There was a news article in The Guardian on 8th August 2014 which I found particularly disturbing being a mother of two young children myself.
The article referred to involve a mother shaking a boy aged perhaps six or seven. The boy complained to his mother that she had punched him. “That wasn’t a punch,” she said. “That was a push.” To drive home the point, she pushed him, right in the center of his chest. This,” — she hit his arm — “is a punch. I suppose you’ll go telling everyone that I’ve been hitting you now?”
The boy sank to the floor of the bus and started to cry. “Get up,” the mother said. If he didn’t, she warned, she’d pull him up by his ear. “Why are you so bad?” she kept on. “None of my other children are bad like you are.”
He started to cry. This went on for three bus-stops. Should you call 999?
The woman’s other three children were sitting placidly with their balloons, and another adult sat beside her. “Why are you so bad?” she asked the boy. “None of my other children are as bad as you are.” The boy began to cry. “Now all the other people on this bus are going to have to listen to you crying,” sighed the woman. “I feel for them, I really do.”
I leaned over. “You know, I actually don’t mind hearing your child crying,” I said evenly, my voice as low as I could manage. “What I do mind is listening to the way you’ve been treating him.”
“I don’t know what you do where you’re from,” retorted the woman, who’d picked up on my American accent. “But in this country, we don’t interfere in what’s not our business.”
Was this woman right to say something or had she not said enough?
John Cameron Head of Child Protection Services at the NSPCC says “We all have a responsibility to speak out when we see a child harmed in public, but it’s easier said than done.”
We all have a responsibility to speak out when we see a child harmed in public,’ says John Cameron.
Deciding when to intervene in a public space requires “a quick calculation on the degree of risk,” says Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England. “One does have to think: if I would intervene when I see that parent chastising their child in public, then what the hell are they doing in private?”
If you’re a member of the public, the risk is that you don’t know who the child is and have no means of monitoring the family — you have no idea what will happen at home.
“Ultimately, the decision of whether a child is a victim of abuse or not lies with social services,” says Berelowitz. “So if you’re worried, call the police. You cannot make that decision. Someone else needs to do the assessment and make the decision.”
In a public space, where you don’t want to risk confrontation, or possible violence, one might decide to keep a distance, make the call and then keep the family in your sights until the authorities arrive: “You can decide that you’re not going to let the child out of your sight until the police arrive,” she suggests.
If it’s a matter of a parent simply losing their cool with a child, it sometimes works to offer to your help, suggests John Cameron of the NSPCC. “It’s often not productive to go over and confront the parent — people just get defensive. Instead of asking them to justify their behaviour, it can help to go over and say something like, ‘Kids can be really difficult. Is there anything I can do to help?’”
Ultimately, say officials, it’s better to err on the side of caution. “There are no defined criteria as to when a person should or should not report the abuse of a child to the authorities,” says Chief Constable Simon Bailey, of the Association of Chief Police Officers. “We would, however, encourage members of the public to exercise their own judgment, erring on the side of caution, and report what they have seen to the police.”
That allows the police to assess the incident alongside any other information they may have on the child.
Another option is to call the NSPCC’s hotline, which receives most of its calls from the public. Last year, in the wake of high-profile abuse scandals, such as the Jimmy Savile case, the volume of calls rose 15%, with callers using words like “duty” and “responsibility” when describing why they called.
“If you’re uncertain about something you’ve seen and left feeling uneasy, call,” says Cameron. “We can help you tease through details and figure out what in the picture is important and what’s not.”
The NSPCC’s telephone hotline for adults concerned about the welfare of a child: 0808 800 5000. Or email: email@example.com.