Witnessing Abuse

About six years ago, I sat behind a car at a red light. It was winter in Minneapolis, so my windows were rolled up. I also had the radio on. But still I heard the woman screaming. I turned down my radio, trying to figure out where it was coming from. It was lasting for almost a minute. And then I saw it—the driver in the car ahead of me was turned around in her seat, screaming at the child in the backseat for spilling Coke in the car. How do I know it was a child? Because the person was so small I couldn’t see the head sticking up above the seat. I rolled down my window to better listen, and heard “fuck” “little shit” “pissed” “Goddamnit.” She didn’t yell. She screamed.

I followed the car into the parking lot of a church—a one-story section of a strip mall. I watched as she got out, as an older child stepped out from the front seat, and as a boy about three years old scooted out of the back. He was crying. He didn’t look angry at his mother. He looked ashamed at himself. The other child just looked sad—the empty kind of sad.

I wrote down the name of the church (no smart phone at the time). I didn’t know then that anyone can call the Dept. of Children & Family Services, that verbal abuse is just as damaging as physical abuse.  I’d never heard or seen anything like it in real life. I thought if I called the church, they would find the woman if they didn’t already know her and do something. But when I got home and called, within five minutes of leaving the parking lot, they didn’t know who I was speaking of. They hadn’t seen the woman I described. Helpless, I hung up the phone. I drove back to the church but her car was gone.

verbal abuseIn the years since, I’ve thought of that little boy more than I can tell you. I’ve hoped that she yelled at him like that again in front of someone else, someone who knew what to do—a teacher or a social worker—and got those children away from that mother, at least for the time being. Because if she screams and swears like that over spilled Coke, what else does she do?

That experience has made me more alert when I’m out in the world and I wish I could say I’ve had no use for my new awareness. But I have—a girl at the lake whose mother loudly berated her, for five straight minutes, for getting her skirt wet as she waded in the shallows on a 95-degree day; a toddler at Target whose father sneered at him for needing a cracker to shut up, then yanked the boy’s ear lobe. In each case, I wanted to wrap the children up and take them home with me, but instead I offered kind words, a dry towel, a reprimand within earshot of the toddler in hopes that the boy would start to learn that his father’s actions were wrong. Small things.

I know departments like DCFS are overloaded and they can’t respond to pulled ear lobes. I don’t know what the answers are. But I feel a responsibility for the children who live in the same world I do. Our culture is too much “to each his own,” even regarding parenting. That philosophy might make sense when it comes to time-outs and breastfeeding–even when it comes to giving your toddler Coke. But not when it comes to any form of abuse. “It takes a village” means helping parents, supporting them, but it also means stepping in when you see them hurting their children.



19 thoughts on “Witnessing Abuse

  1. Oh, Jessica. I KNOW what you are saying. I feel it, too, and while I haven’t called for help (yet), I have been blessed with a speak-first-think-later mouth . . . and I’m constantly amazed at how often I need to use it. Just go to Target on Friday evening after 9pm. Guaranteed, there will be a parent roaming the aisles with a child desperate for sleep and hopeless for a champion. My husband jokes that one day he’ll have to come bail me out for assaulting some hapless mother. But I, like you, believe with my whole heart that the words we say in front of children MATTER. My words may be the only words that show them they are worth better than they are getting. So I’ll keep saying them. Even AFTER I get bailed out!

  2. Wow how sad this was. But reality is it happens way too much these days. Children are a blessing from God not to be misused.

  3. Excellent post, Jess. I know how much that story affected you due to how many times I have heard it. I have my stories too, as I am sure many do. The most recent of my stories is one that I will never forget. I take being a mandated reporter seriously (not that I wouldn’t report child abuse had I not gone into a field that requires me to report it) and when I was at a festival last summer I witnessed a drunk father berate, choke and slap his 12 year old son for asking to go home since he was tired. This slap occurred in front of the father’s group of friends. No one said anything. I spoke to my about what I had seen and informed her that I had to do something. She told me to forget about it and mind my own business. We both know that just isn’t me. So I approached a police officer, told him that I am a mandated reporter and that I had to inform him of what I had just witnessed. The officer looked semi-annoyed with me and grudginly went to speak to the father. Nothing was done, just a man-to-man talk between the father and the officer. About 15 minutes later, the father’s wife approached me. I was terrified. I thought she was going to assault me. However, she asked me for help. She wanted to know if I knew of any agencies that could help her deal with the abuse that her and her son had been experiencing from the father/husband. It made me happy that I could provide her with a list of names, agencies and websites for help. Had I never said anything, she may have never known how many places in her community offer help. I just hope she made a call or clicked on a site and is receiving the help she needs.

    • I don’t think I ever heard that story! I am so glad you said something; there’s a bonus to being able to say, “I have no choice; I’m breaking the law if I DON’T say something.” I really hope she called.

  4. Your story this week is so sad but so true. I think everyone needs to take a step back every once is a while. Stop being in such a hurry and remember that kids will be kids and deserve the chance to be. We have all spilled a drink in the car. It’s not the end of the world. We have all been tired and not wanted to do something but when a child is not given a choice and tries to vocalize how he feels about it we should listen. There have been plenty of times when I have dragged my kids to the store because I’ve needed something but I try to ask them if they want to go. If they are clear that they really would rather stay home then I do my best to figure out another way to get it done. I’m not perfect by any means, but I really try to pay attention and not just to thier mood but to my own. If they are acting goofy and being loud and I’m just tired and cranky I tell myself “You’re just tired. Don’t get annoyed by them just because you are tired. They are having fun, let them be kids.” Katie- your story is inspiring. It is good to know that you can have an impact by speaking up. I will remember that for the future. Great blog Jess! Way to go bringing awareness to such a big problem!!

  5. Jessica, thanks for sharing your story. Too often people do not take verbal abuse – of children, or a spouse or significant others – seriously. It IS serious – it leaves scars on the spirit that will always live with a person, regardless of how well s/he recovers, later.

    And, sometimes the victims *don’t* recover. They go on to abuse substances and/or commit suicide. Or, their abuser eventually kills them.

    • Right, right, right. It’s hard for me to believe I really didn’t know what to do in that situation because now I have no doubt what I would have done. I’ve stopped replaying the better scenario in my head because it’s just too frustrating, to say the least. But next time, and all the times, I’m not going to sit and watch.

  6. Pingback: Screams behind the curtains | men will pause

  7. You bring up such a vital topic today, Jessica. When I was in high school working as a life guard, there was a woman who routinely beat her children in the locker room, It was disgusting. The only thing we were told to do was to ask her to leave if she was going to engage in violent behavior, and if it seemed super bad call the manager so he could call the police. I think that when we witness this sort of violence, most of us are just so shocked we don’t know what to do. You should include the hotline number in your post.

    • That’s horrible. I wonder what “super bad” meant to the manager. Not that s/he is to blame; we have such a culture of live and let live and it can be a gray line between harsh and abuse.
      And like you say, when it’s in your face it’s shocking. Thanks for the reminder to include the number, and I will, but the situations like the one above, I say just call 911 if you see abuse; they’ll know where to direct you.

  8. Jessica, thank you for sharing this story. I am glad that this incident helped inform your life–that you are now more aware to look out for children who are being abused like this. Many of your readers will now keep their eyes open, as well.

  9. Jessica, this sort of thing is so heartwrenching, so outrageous. Even as a social worker, it is hard to know the right thing to do. DYFS is there to protect such children, but as you say, the system is very overloaded. I have seen children go from abusive biological homes to equally abusive foster homes too. The parent was probably parenting the way she had been parented–such a brutal cycle. Parent support and parent education are usually the best solutions, but they’re often too little, too late.

    • A BRUTAL cycle, yes. I hear and read about the Harlem Children’s Zone and I want to do that everywhere, every square inch of the country. Is there any other way to break the cycle beyond education? Even if it’s too little too late for some, eventually we’ll catch up, right?

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