Doing “something”

August 16, 2011

By Jeannette Archer Simons

When I read a story like this I sometimes feel helpless – what can we do differently to stop this?

A parent of a seven- year- old disabled child cut their child’s head off – because they were tired of caring for the child. Really? How did we as a society not notice that this child was in trouble? It is hard to believe that the father just woke up one morning and while the mother was away at work, decided to take the child’s life. You almost want to believe that it was only a moment of madness and that this was a onetime occurrence.

But every day we read about children who are harmed by a parent who lost control. Someone had to see there were issues. If they did, did they step in? What about me -would I have noticed? Would I have done something? I hope so.

One of the reasons I got involved as a volunteer with Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance is because I wanted to know more about what I could do to help families cope with stresses that lead to this type of behavior. For example, PFSA’s affiliated organizations across the state provide wonderful training how to manage parenting stress without harming a child. Would that have stopped this? I don’t know, but it is designed to do just that, help parents cope better with the stresses of parenting.

I also know that by being better informed on what I can do – being an advocate for a child if I suspect something is wrong – helps. We can take action if we suspect a child is being harmed. Call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313 if you suspect abuse. You can remain anonymous. There is more information on the PFSA website at about signs of abuse.

I know it is hard to step in when you don’t think it is any of your business, but what happens if we don’t? When I was working with Girl Scout leaders, I occasionally would get a call that someone had arrived to pick up a child from a troop meeting, and the troop leader thought that the child was terrified of the parent or boyfriend who was there to get them. They could simply let the child go; after all they are just a volunteer, right? A child being afraid to go home or cringing when approached by an adult is a sign of possible abuse. This is the time to take action and report suspected abuse. Making a call to ChildLine is one way to help that child. Taking such an action protects the child -and it is the right thing to do.

Overhearing an adult verbally assaulting a child can also be a time to step in. You can play an active role in preventing the situation from escalating to child abuse. If an adult is losing patience with a child, intervene, but keep it positive. Avoid negative remarks or looks. Start a conversation with the parent. Intervening will help to calm the situation for the child and the parent may realize that their behavior is inappropriate. Simple statements like “kids can wear you out,” or “it looks like your child is having a bad day.” And then follow up – “is there anything I can do to help?” PFSA’s Front Porch Project gives you lots of ideas for how to help in situations like this.

A key to all of this is taking action. In the case of the child who was killed, what if a neighbor had offered to help periodically with the disabled child? What if someone had noticed bruises or yelling? It is scary to take action, and it doesn’t mean you need to put yourself in harm’s way. But your actions may help keep that child from harm. If only someone had been there for this seven-year- old.