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What should I do if I suspect child abuse?

Anita Kulick offers information on how to report suspected child abuse, and tips that may help curb child abuse in everyday situations that you may encounter like at the mall or grocery store.

Child abuse isn't new, but it's not something most people talk about. That all changed with the Jerry Sandusky case. When the story became headline news for months, child abuse was impossible to ignore any longer. Everyone had an opinion about it. The discussions weren't about Sandusky's guilt or innocence, but about who was responsible for reporting suspicions to the authorities. The questions many people began asking themselves were, "What would I have done? What should I have done?"

The law is clear when it comes to professionals who are mandated to report concerns, but for average citizens the answer is far more difficult and a lot more personal.

Professional or not, if you witness or strongly suspect that a child is in real danger, you should report it. If there is fear of immediate harm to the child, call 911. In instances that are not as time sensitive, you can call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453. The hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is staffed with professional crisis counselors. All calls are anonymous.

Your course of action is far less clear when it comes to everyday situations that happen at the mall or even when visiting a friend or relative. You may sense the parent is overwhelmed emotionally, and it's affecting his or her ability to parent effectively.

It's times like these, when "your danger antennal goes up," says Beth Bitler, program director at the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance. You feel compelled to do something, but you're torn between taking action to protect the child and violating the parent's authority; or even worst, escalating the situation.

What, if anything, can you do? Bitler wants us to know that any action taken, no matter how small, can help protect a child. It's also critical that you don't embarrass the parent, and just as important, the action taken must be something you feel comfortable doing.

Bitler describes a typical situation. You're waiting in a supermarket checkout line, and the three year old in front of you grabs a candy bar from the display. The mother tells the child, "No" and puts it back. In frustration, the little boy begins crying at the top of his lungs. With each passing second, the mother becomes more humiliated which turns into anger. She begins berating the child by threating to beat him. The situation has turned volatile. You want to react, but what are your options?

Bitler has several suggestions based on your personal style.

If you're comfortable with a more direct approach:

  1. Smile at the parent; give an understanding nod; and comment that you know how he or she feels.

  2. Talk to the child in an effort to refocus his or her energy.

If you're more comfortable with an indirect approach you can:

  1. Make a comment to a store security guard

  2. Go to store management and suggest that they have at least one candy-free checkout lane to help avoid the situation in the first place.

Whichever intervention you choose, the most important thing is that you've decided to take action. The Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance knows that these everyday interventions can have a tremendous community-wide impact in curbing child abuse. In their mission to educate the general public in what to do and when to do it, they've developed the Front Porch Project.

The FPP is a prevention initiative based on the belief that everyone can and should become more aware of how to help protect fragile and at-risk children in their communities. It provides ordinary citizens with the knowledge, training, and encouragement they need to become involved and effective. By attending the training, participants will learn:

  1. How and when to safely respond when worried about a child in your neighborhood or public space

  2. How to make decisions to help and what stops us from helping when we are concerned about a family

  3. The many ways we can all help to protect children and prevent child abuse.

If you would like to attend Front Porch training, the Pennsylvania Parenting Coalition is hosting the next one in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at 919 Walnut Street. To register for this training or for more information about hosting your own community Front Porch Project, contact Beth Bitler at or 1-800-448-4906.

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