Suspicions of Abuse

Dear Mr. Dad: A young family recently moved in next door. There’s always a lot of yelling and door slamming and I’ve noticed that the boy who lives there, who looks about 10, often has bruises on his face, arms, and legs. Whenever I see him, he seems afraid to make eye contact. I don’t want to rush to judgment and accuse the parents of abuse, but I also don’t want to turn a blind eye in case I’m right. What should I do?

A: Thank you for speaking up and for your concern—you’ve just identified several classic warning signs of abuse. You’ve also stumbled into a very tough, very complex situation (one that I’m sure will generate angry emails from readers no matter how I answer the question).

Let’s start with the basics. Child abuse and neglect are, unfortunately, a widespread problem, and thanks in part to the slumping economy, they’re on the rise. Hospitals around the country are reporting a marked increase in the number of children treated for fractures, bruises, burns, and other injuries—which many experts attribute directly to the parents’ financial woes.

No one knows exactly how pervasive this problem is, but the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families estimate that about 900,000 children in the United States and Puerto Rico suffer abuse and/or maltreatment annually. Of those, more than 1,500 died as a result of their injuries. Sadly, because many cases of abuse and neglect are never reported, the actual numbers may be a lot higher.

The good news is that in addition to federal legislation, all 50 states have child abuse and neglect laws, which require certain people—for example teachers, social workers, health care providers, and many others—to report suspected child abuse to the authorities.

Still, I understand that you’re not sure what to do—after all, at this point, your suspicions are just that–suspicions. If your neighbor really is in danger, reporting the abuse could keep him from becoming another heartbreaking statistic. But if you’re wrong, you could destroy the family. In theory, your county’s child protective agency will investigate your report and determine whether or not the boy is being abused. Unfortunately, in many cases, as soon as the report comes in, the child is immediately taken out of the home and the parents find themselves in a guilty-until-proven-innocent nightmare. If it turns out to be a false alarm–children are often shy and plenty of kids fall and injure themselves–the family may never recover from the psychological scars and the damage done to the parents’ reputation.

So what should you do? If you’re sure about the abuse, call your local child protective services or abuse reporting hotline, or the national hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. You can make your report anonymously.

If you’re not completely sure, another option is to find out where the child goes to school. Then call the principal and tell him or her about your suspicions. Sounds like you’re avoiding taking responsibility and in a way you are. You’re also putting the matter into the hands of people who may be better equipped than you to evaluate the situation before reporting it to the authorities. Plus, because most kids consider their school a safe place, the child may be more likely to talk openly with a teacher or school nurse.

Whatever you do, do not ignore your suspicions. It’s better to err on the side of caution than to ignore what may turn out to be a real case of abuse.