There are very strict laws for reporting child abuse if you are a counselor, a teacher, a medical professional, an employee of a school district, or a law enforcement worker. For the average person, however, these laws do not apply, and as a result, most people don’t know what to do if they suspect that a neighbor’s child, a friend of your child, or a child of a friend may be being abused. Ethically, most feel that they should report abuse if they suspect it, and this is generally a good guideline to follow.
Reporting child abuse is anonymous, so you usually do not need to fear repercussions from your report. Normally, you can report it to your local child protection agency, or to the police department, if you feel relatively certain that a child is being abused. Signs of abuse might include the child having frequent injuries, or you hearing extremely abusive language or seeing physical abuse directed at a child. You might also want to report suspicion of severe child neglect, such as kids being left without supervision at a very young age, seeming physically unwell all the time, or appearing starved or malnourished.
When reporting suspected abuse or neglect of a child, its important to give the authorities as much information as possible. If you know the child's age, name, or can recall incidences where the child appeared to have suffered from abuse or neglect, these should all be reported. It's also important to remember that not all suspicious activity indicates child abuse. Some kids are extremely skinny and eat very well. A child who is unsupervised once may be the result of extraordinary circumstances. Children that seem chronically ill may have ongoing medical conditions, and some are also prone to a high number of accidents.
In other words, simply because you suspect abuse, that doesn’t mean it is occurring. On the other hand, if you have actually witnessed a child being abused, either verbally or physically, or if you have witnessed incidences of domestic violence in a home, a child is more at risk. Also, if you notice patterns of behavior, like frequently being outside unsupervised or young children being left unsupervised, you should report it.
Sometimes, our own standards of parenting are higher than another parent’s. A parent occasionally yelling at a kid may be unacceptable to you, but is not necessarily a reason to report it as abuse. A parent always screaming at a kid, on the other hand, is verbal abuse, and warrants a call to the local child protective agency.
There are some occasions when you should report suspected child abuse immediately to emergency services rather than to the child protective agency. If you witness a child being abused, or you perhaps hear a domestic violence fight that is ongoing in a home next door, you should call police immediately. You should also waste no time in reporting it if you hear the child being threatened with physical violence. You still can remain anonymous, though you may need to meet with the police if suspected abuse has occurred. A child in immediate danger needs your help right away, however, and it is not a subject to mull over for a few days.
It can be difficult to take on the role of neighborhood watchdog or be the person who “tells.” We’re often told as children that “tattling” is wrong, but children have little protection in an abusive environment. They may not be able to report incidents themselves, or they may be so used to the abuse that they do not realize what they are experiencing is criminal and wrong. Stepping in and reporting it can initiate an investigation, which may help to ensure the safety of children.
What you should avoid is direct confrontation of the abuser. This could put you at potential risk, especially in cases of spousal abuse. It could also tip off an abuser, who would then have time to cover his or her tracks and threaten the children not to tell. Talking to the child, unless you are a professional, is also not a good idea. You might risk the child's safety if he or she confides in you, and then lets this slip to his or her abuser.