Being A Witness Of Child Abuse

Monday, March 11, 2013

A couple of days ago Nash Yielding, who runs Caring Witness, asked me several questions about intervening in situations in which people are abusing children, since I have some experience intervening. I think these are very important questions to ask ourselves, even if we haven't intervened in such situations and have never thought about doing it.

I've tried to answer Nash's questions honestly and at length. Afterward, I thought that it would be useful to post some of my answers as an article for other people to read. Nash agreed that it might increase awareness of the issue, as well as possible solutions.

So, without further ado, here it is. (The questions are unedited.)

1) About how many times have you intervened in child abuse (whether directly or indirectly)?

Five or six times, probably more. It depends on how we define "success," "abuse," and "intervention." (See the answer to Question #2).

2) Do you think the intervention(s) was/were "successful"? How do you define "success" in the context of an intervention?

That’s a complex question. We might understand success as stopping child abuse in the moment. But I don’t think that’s always necessary or possible, because depending on the methods of intervention, and on the abuser’s mental health in general, he or she might abuse the child even more harshly or in other ways afterward, when they are alone with the child again. When intervening, the most important thing for me to do is to concentrate on the abused child: what's best for him or her; how to help the child as best as I can in the situation; to constructively show the child that there is someone in the world who understands the occurring injustice and empathize with the child’s feelings produced by the trauma.

How we define abuse is also important. It’s more than physical harm. My definition of child abuse is this: When a child’s true self suffers harm – be it physical, sexual, psychological, or emotional – he is being abused. According to this definition, I see child abuse daily, hourly, sometimes constantly (for example, in the mall or in the park). When I see a caretaker and a child, I very often see adult actions that in one way or another are harmful to the child.

In addition, there are many types of intervention. These could include verbal interaction, a physical action, a disapproving stare at the abuser, or an emotional connection with the abused child. Depending on the action chosen, and its results, my answers to your questions might be very different.

An honest answer to the question about my success rate is this: I don’t know. Based on my gut feeling (in other words, my unconscious) after some interactions, I pretty much knew I did the best I objectively could. After some interactions I knew that I could have done this or that differently. After other interactions, I wasn’t sure. I was glad that the instantaneous abuse stopped, but I wasn’t sure how helpful my intervention was, looking from an objective and wider perspective.

3) How did you feel during the confrontation? How about afterward? (If you've intervened more than once, please note how you felt with each one, if they were different)

In most (if not in all) interactions, I felt some kind of combination of sadness, compassion, fear, anger, and loneliness. In most cases, I think I acted consciously and maturely. I try not to interact if I catch myself overwhelmed with too much emotion – or in such cases, I intervene in a less confrontational way: with a caring or disapproving stare, or with another facial expression. After the intervention, I feel strong emotions, more often unpleasant than pleasant. After the intervention, I feel strong emotions, more often unpleasant than pleasant.

One instance stands out. I was walking with four or five acquaintances, and one woman was yelling at her small daughter, shaking and pulling her. I intervened. This woman was very apologetic and said that I was right and that it was wrong to do what she was doing. (Obviously, I don’t know how sincere she was.) What stood out to me was the fact that one of my acquaintances said to me, “You’re very brave. I couldn’t do that.” In the moment, I felt supported, and it made the whole experience easier. Sadly, based on my personal experience and other peoples’ stories, such moments of support and encouragement are rare.

4) What is keeping you from intervening more? Put another way, what would help you to intervene more often?

What keeps me from intervening more is mostly the scale, frequency, and extent of the abuse that I see – which (as I said above) is unfortunately very frequent – people’s ignorance and hostility (both other witnesses and the abusers), and most of the time emotionally it feels unpleasant. There is a feeling of loneliness while doing it.

Only once have I seen somebody besides myself who was willing to do something while witnessing child abuse. It was a situation of child-on-child (sibling) abuse, and this guy came over only after I took the initiative first. In most cases, if someone is abusing a child, people do nothing, and if I intervene, they feel very uncomfortable, sometimes even hostile. So, based on my observations and personal experience, interventions are very rare, and intervening takes a lot of courage and emotional strength.

I think support and encouragement from others might motivate people to intervene more. Having an objective definition of abuse, and an understanding of our own childhood history, also helps us to feel more clarity and empathy for ourselves – and, by extension, for others, especially for children.

I think it’s very important for the caring witness to interact out of kindness, not out of obligation. Meaning, the caring witness has to understand that he’s not obligated to intervene, but he’s doing it because he wants to. He’s morally free to act or not act. It’s important to understand that sometimes direct intervention (for example, verbal or physical interaction), or any intervention, might not be the best way to go. When we witness abuse, we find ourselves in a very delicate and loaded situation. To be as effective as possible, we must be aware of many things: our own mental state and capacity – in this specific situation and in general – our own history with abuse; our true motives; what’s going on in the present situation; the spectrum of our potential actions; the potential results; etc.

It’s not very wise to act impulsively without knowing what we’re doing, even if we have the best intentions. Sometimes it might be beneficial to act anyway, because our basic instincts might kick in, and sometimes we subconsciously might know how to handle the situation properly, even without realizing it consciously. As I’ve said, the decision of whether or not to intervene in situations of abuse is very subtle and multi-dimensional. In my humble opinion, mindful awareness and wise maturity are the best way to handle it – whatever that means in the given situation.


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5 comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing a badly needed, thought provoking article. Thank you! There is a huge need to bring this discussion out into the open so that we can give more people the opportunity to be caring witnesses. You are right on the mark in bringing to light how most people do not want to get involved when they have opportunities to do it. There's also another reason: Stressful situations often block our ability to think clearly. High stress situations trigger all the fight-flight reactions, which often paralyze many people. Your article let's people think - ahead of time - about what they might do! And like you, I try to assess the abuse situations (to the best of my ability under stress) to determine how I can be most effective. But there is always an emotional price, which I hadn't really thought about until now - it feels so lonely, which leaves me second guessing my interventions. I appreciate that you have articulated those emotions, here. With that, I feel less lonely. Thank you so much for your leadership, Darius. You are a powerful child advocate, and I'm happy to have made your acquaintance.

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  2. A very thoughtful article on what I agree is a difficult and complicated subject. There is so much abuse directed at children--even if just emotional abuse like threats, put-downs, disregarding behavior that I see in public, aside from actually seeing a child being hit. Sometimes I've regretted that it's just not practical to intervene--such as when I was on the other end of a crowded, moving bus, yet those memories make me sick. Nevertheless, it's very good to have a model to work through how I want to handle it in the future.

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  3. Thank you for your kind and supporting comments Katrina and Caden.

    It's good to know that there are people around the world who understand this stuff and are not indifferent about it.

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  4. I've just noticed, that all Likes for this post disappeared - it had more than 80 Likes. It's probably because I redirected the blog to a different domain. Oh, well...

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  5. Thanks for this article! It has made me feel a lot less alone and insecure about having intervened at work where a mother was grabbing her daughter aggressively and shoving her into a stroller. I told her that treating her daughter that way was only going to frustrate her and make things harder for both of them and she just told me to worry about my own kids and she'll worry about hers.

    I lied and said that I had my own kids when she gave the canned question of "do you have your own kids?" Which I know was gonna warrant the canned retort of "wait until you have your own," if I said no like I normally have before. I got curious as to what what was gonna happen if I said I had my own kids and she still had something snarky prepared.

    It does help to have support, I was glad that an older woman at the store had saw what happened and told me that she agreed with me. I am also hoping the for the abusive mother's son witnessing the intervention, that he got the idea that his mother's behaviour should not be normalized or accepted.

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