Q&A: witnessing a parent abusing a child

Here's a sad one. I don't have a real answer for it (as you'll see). What do you think?

Corrie writes:

"I am a 24-year-old grad student - no children of my own, but I tend to take care of other people's and want a family someday.

While volunteering with my therapy dog at the mall today, I saw a woman hit her child, hard.  I missed whatever prompted it, but saw her ball up her fist and slam it backhanded into her little girl (age, maybe 10?). The girl cringed away but did not cry out.

I was with another woman and we were both upset by it, but neither of us got involved because we didn't want to make the situation worse for the little girl.  In a situation like that - where I knew the mother would resent any "interference" and I don't have any way to reach the child - what would you recommend doing? Its now 3 am, and I climbed out of bed to try and process this, as I cannot sleep for thinking of it.

I know this is a little different from your usual question, so please feel free to set it aside if its not appropriate for your blog.  Thanks for giving me a place to ask the question, either way."

No wonder you can't sleep for thinking of it. I got a little sick to my stomach just reading the question.

I've been in situations 3 or 4 times (always on public transportation, not-so-oddly enough) in which I could tell the parent was getting frustrated and things could escalate to abuse. I've tried to step in before things got really nasty in a way that affirmed both the parent and the child, by offering empathy to the parent and compliments to the child. Usually I start by trying to catch the parent's eye and rolling my eyes in that "we've all been there" way. Then I say something like, "Geez, it's rough, isn't it? I can tell she's really smart. It's the smart ones that drive you crazy." Then I look at the kid and use a joking or cutesy voice to say, "Are you too smart? Someday your mom's going to be glad you're a brilliant lawyer or a rocket scientist, but she sure is tired right now. You two better go easy on each other." Then I try to chit-chat the mom a little more if I have time, dumb mom stuff about getting paint out of clothes or toddlers not wanting to let you get them dressed, etc., just to build community and let her know she's not in it alone. As I leave I say something like "Hey, smart girl, take care of your mom, OK?" and then "Hang in there" to the mom with a big smile.

But.

That's before the situation has escalated, or when you can tell it's just a normal parent stretched to the limits (like we all are at times--ask me about the time I screamed at El Chico "You are making me insaaaaaane! Just stop asking me questionsssss!" on 2nd Avenue). Once a parent has hit a child in public, things have derailed so far that there's really no way to try to herd the parent back into decent behavior.

I don't think there's any good answer to this. The best possible result would be to be able to say something that would make the mother decide to stop hurting her child and actively work on better discipline and communication. The acceptable result would be to let the child know that it's not normal and it's not OK for her mother to be hurting her. But how can you do that without making it worse?

The satisfying thing to do would be to call 911, then block the mother from leaving until the police got there. But then what happens? The mother is even angrier. The child is in even more danger, and is now terrified that her mother's going to go off to jail.

The only-slightly-less-satisfying thing to do would be to loudly ask, "Did you just hit your child?" and draw a bunch of attention to her. A crowd might form and start telling her she was doing the wrong thing. The good thing here would be that the child would know that the mother's abuse was not acceptable or normal behavior. It might be the only thing that enabled her to make it until she was old enough to leave. But it could also put the child in greater danger, and who knows if any other people would back you up?

You could follow the parent and try to figure out enough information to report her to Child Services, but who knows where that would lead. There's no guarantee there would be any investigation, even, let alone any intervention that could actually help the pair.

I was in a situation a few weeks ago in which it was cold outside and I saw a mother hitting her toddler on the face repeatedly because he wasn't leaving the blanket tucked in over him in the stroller. I had no idea what to do, and I kind of froze, but eventually I found my voice and said the first thing I could think of. I said, "Ma'am, is there anything I can do to help you?" She looked at me like I was a crazy person, but I felt like I had to press on. "Because I saw you hitting your baby, and that's just not the right thing to do." At that point two men walking by who had seen it also stopped and started telling her she shouldn't hit her kid. She said, "But he'll catch a cold! He won't keep his blanket on!" I said, "Wouldn't it be better for him to get sick with a cold than to have a mother who hits him? If you need any kind of help taking a break, I can watch him for a few minutes while you go get a cup of coffee and cool off." Of course she turned me down, because no one would let a stranger on the street in New York (albeit a stranger pushing a sleeping baby) watch her kid. I didn't have any idea what to do, but she turned and wheeled the kid accross the street, so I went home.

I have no idea if this was the right thing to do. I was so shaken up by it that I couldn't blog about it at the time. Just typing it out right now is making my stomach knot up. But I couldn't just not say anything and let her and her son think it's OK to hit your child like that.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but that kid I saw and that kid Corrie saw are our own kids. They're El Chico and El Pequeño. They're any future kids we're lucky enough to have, and they're us when we were little. They don't need to be taken away from their parents. Their parents need community support to be able to deal with the shitty, stressful, tunnel-vision-inducing aspects of parenting with love and grace and patience instead of violence. They need to be taught how to deal with children's behavior that's completely normal but that does threaten to make us lose our minds. They need support, and their kids need protection.

So, what do we do? What can we say? Because we can't say nothing.

Any ideas?

Updated: Lisa C. posted this wonderful link about things to do when you witness a parent hurting a child. It especially emphasizes that you don't want to give approval to the abuser, and staying silent implies approval and normalcy.