Parenting Vigilantes: When to Report Another Parent

Wondering whether—or when—you should report another parent's behavior to authorities? Read on for expert advice.
Priscilla Gragg

Children are sometimes in real danger, and calls from a neighbor, a family member, or a stranger have certainly saved young lives. But knowing when to make the call isn't always clear. For instance, many states have no specific laws about the "right" age to leave a child unsupervised. Others range from 6 (Kansas) to 8 (Georgia) to 12 (Colorado) to 14 (Illinois).

In fact, of the 100,000 or so calls the National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) gets each year, less than 1 percent are so clear-cut that they elicit a "'hang up and call 911 right now' from us," says its director, Michelle Fingerman.

Rather, most callers have questions about what constitutes child abuse. While she doesn't have an estimate of how many calls are from overly vigilant bystanders, they can be challenging. Says Fingerman: "People get passionate, and we have to educate them that there's a difference between child abuse and different styles of parenting. That said, we
take each call very seriously."

The national definition of child abuse or neglect is extensive, but at minimum it's defined as: "Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm."

The question of immediate risk is a helpful indicator: An unattended toddler in a hot car with no parent in sight? Call right now. But an 8-year-old alone in the park? That may be worrisome to some, but there's probably no immediate risk.

Related: Read Our 2-Part Series on Fear and Parenting: 

Experts advise making the call if you see, or have a reasonable suspicion of:

  • a parent (or caregiver) hitting a child hard enough to cause injury. Spanking, as long as it causes no bodily injury, is not considered abuse, according to federal guidelines (although the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend it, for any reason).
  • any kind of sexual abuse
  • substance abuse, if you think it impairs the parent's ability to care for a child
  • emotional abuse. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection.
  • neglect, especially if the child begs for or steals food, and seems dirty and uncared for. There is also educational neglect (including failing to attend to special needs) and medical neglect (not providing necessary medical or mental-health treatment). 
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