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: