Challenging an Abusive Family in Public
Laurie A. Couture

I am legally obligated to intervene when I witness a child being hit in public or if I am made aware of any other act of child abuse. As a mental health counselor and former social worker, I am a mandated reporter. But that is not why I intervene. I intervene because it is the human, moral and right thing to do. I wrote the following experience this past summer, and it was printed in the newspaper. It was an account of one of the many times I've intervened - times when the other bystanders turned away. I thought you'd like to read it:

To the Portsmouth Herald:
Market Square Day 2001 was a carefree event for most people this year, but not for two children present. One block away from the “Prevent Child Abuse New Hampshire” booth, I witnessed an act of child abuse. As a social worker that works regularly with child victims of trauma, I had hoped for a refreshing weekend. As I walked by the food vendors, taking in the candy atmosphere of grilled hot dogs and colorful balloons, I watched a shocking scene unfold. As quick as lightening I saw a little boy of nine transform from curious child to horrified victim. His father grabbed him by his curly hair and yanked him upwards until the child was up on the tips of his toes. His face wrenched in pain and then exploded with fearful sobs as his father gripped his hair and sneered threats into his pleading face. I stood frozen, mouth open, in shock. The father then grabbed his pre-teen daughter by the elbow. I watched as her skin became red around his fingernails.

I watched the mother walk away with the sobbing boy. I approached her and asked her why she allowed her husband to hurt her son. I added that I doubted that she would allow her husband to treat her in such a manner. She rolled her eyes and exaggerated a sigh, insisting that her tearful son was “fine”. She defensively snapped, “mind your own (expletive) business!” I informed her that it was my business, as a social worker and mandated reporter of child abuse.

Her husband suddenly became nose-to-nose with me. He appeared to be attempting to intimidate me, growling a low-voiced set of slow, careful threats of how I “better turn around right now and walk away” and shut my mouth. I refused to back down. The boy and his sister were wide open, curiously surprised and listening carefully. Nothing was more important at that moment than informing the children that what was done to them was wrong. The man tried to justify his assault on his kids in the name of discipline. I explained that parents do not ever need to hurt children in order to teach them. He continued to threaten me, thrusting his face close to mine. I turned to seek out a police officer. When I located one, the family was gone.

How often do people witness scenes like this and turn their backs? How many people believe that it is acceptable for parents to inflict pain on a child in the name of discipline? It is this belief that breeds child abuse and aggressive children. It is this belief that tolerates laws that protect spouses, employees, prisoners and other adults against physical assaults (such as whacking, slapping and smacking), but not children. Until the law protects children from all physical punishments, nightmarish scenes like this one will continue without recourse.

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