Looking back on the national news of 2014, there's an ugly theme: violence. The stories that dominated headlines for months included that of Ray Rice, who was suspended by the NFL after charges of assault against the woman who is now his wife, and of Adrian Peterson, suspended by the NFL after whipping his 4-year-old with a switch. Of course, domestic violence, child abuse, and other acts of cruelty are hardly a trend; they've been going on forever. But what may be new--and a welcome change--is that these stories may propel people to speak out when they know someone is in danger.
"The majority of people want to do something, but do nothing because they don't know what to do," says Mary L. Pulido, Ph.D., executive director of The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which has the distinction of being the first child-protection agency in the world, founded in 1875. The NYSPCC is one of three groups who created a program, funded by the Avon Foundation for Women, called "See the Signs: Bystanders Can Help. Learn How." The series examines how to help those affected by domestic violence, whether they're young children, teens, or adults. The NYSPCC focused specifically on children with its campaign, "Stand Up, Don't Stand By." The goal is to inspire the public to take action when they suspect abuse or neglect. To learn exactly how to do that, you take the online course, which essentially boils down to watching a roughly 30-minute video that runs through various common scenarios. I took it and learned helpful information on how to navigate some awfully fraught situations.
Let's say you have a feeling that a neighbor is being abused by her partner. You can say something along the lines of, "I know something's going on; it must be very painful. I'm very worried for you, and I can give you resources, referrals, a hotline." It's crucial to not shut her out if she doesn't respond, stresses Dr. Pulido: "The majority of women are very scared. If they do anything to stop the violence, they may be at higher risk for more violence. Statistics show that women can be killed. They may not want to live in a homeless shelter. The abuser may be saying, 'If you leave me, I'll kill myself.'" In other words, you have no idea exactly what's holding her back from getting help, but you can assume it's serious. So in the meantime, be a constant source of support. "Sooner or later, you're going to break through. When she's ready, you may be the person she turns to," says Dr. Pulido. And when she does, you can refer her to--or be with her when she calls--The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE.
You cannot wait it out, however, if you believe a child's safety is at risk. In that case, make a call to your local agency equipped to handle reports of suspected abuse and neglect. This is a listing of every state's number--but you can also call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD). Whichever number you call, explain what you know and let the expert on the other end of the line take it from there. He or she is specially trained to determine whether what you've shared warrants an investigation.
This brings me to a question many of us have: What if I'm wrong? What happens if I report a parent who isn't actually harming his or her child? Dr. Pulido has a simple answer: Make the call anyway. "Err on the side of the child," she says. But also keep in mind that you can make your report anonymously. Also, the majority of children who go on to have cases opened on their behalf are victims of neglect--meaning they're not getting to school, they're not getting the proper medical attention, they're not getting enough food, they're being left alone. In those situations, the parents are given resources--the children aren't taken from the home. So try not to worry that your call will automatically break up a family.
It's important to know that depending on where you live, reporting suspected abuse is not optional. In 18 states, you must report it if you suspect abuse or neglect. And some states have mandated reporters that may surprise you: commercial film and photograph processors or computer technicians, for example (which addresses the rampant child pornography problem in our country). To find out your state's laws, see this comprehensive map created by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN).
Dr. Pulido is the first to admit that it's hard to speak up: "It is anxiety-provoking, but everyone has to have the courage to make the call. You'll sleep better knowing that you started a process that could possibly save a child's life."