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REAL LIFE

'90s FAMILY : When You See a Parent Lose It, What Do You Do?

August 02, 1995|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it happens at home, no one else sees. But when a parent loses it with a young child in public, everyone sees, and the slapping, the name-calling or the threats can leave witnesses heartsick, outraged and torn over what, if anything, to do about it.

A commuter on a late afternoon Amtrak from Los Angeles said recently that she became aware of an unusual noise behind her. She turned around and saw a young woman slapping a toddler repeatedly across his face with an open hand.

"What shocked me is that I hadn't heard a peep out of him. He was just sitting there, not appearing to do anything.

"What turned my stomach is that he started crying, so she said, 'Stop crying,' and he wouldn't so she kept slapping him and he kept crying. Finally, he turned to the window and was sobbing without making a sound so he wouldn't get hit any more."

She made eye contact with another female commuter who was also obviously concerned. "Without words we were asking each other what to do," she said.

She was deliberating when the other woman got up as if to stretch, approached the mother in a friendly way and started small talk, smiling at the little boy. Gradually, she withdrew and soon the mother and child got off the train.

How or whether strangers should intervene depends on the circumstances, said Deanne Tilton, director of the Los Angeles Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect. In situations when they observe mild slapping or berating of a child, strangers can best help children by doing just what the woman on the train did--focusing on the parent with empathy. The attitude to convey, she said, is, "I respect that you have a tough job and I would like to help you." Sometimes, it helps to compliment the child.

For some immature parents, it is the very nature of being in public with the child that brings out abuse, Tilton said. Perhaps they feel judged and the child has embarrassed them. Or the child's behavior has spoiled their expectations for a restful outing. "So they feel sorry for themselves; they become the child," she said.

In extreme cases, intervention could save a child's life. Ninety percent of child abuse fatalities occur to children under 5, before the family becomes visible and accountable to public school officials. Anyone who sees a child being struck hard or threatened with bodily harm should identify the abusing adult through a license plate, or a check if he or she has used one at a grocery store, and call law enforcement or a child abuse hot line.

"In no instance should anybody go up and confront the abuser physically or verbally and demand they stop or threaten any kind of action," Tilton said. Some people have wound up physically assaulted themselves. Confrontation is also likely to make the adult angrier and may result in the child being further harmed later.

Strangers can give an out-of-control caretaker a disapproving look. It's surprising how many back off.

Another Los Angeles commuter said she was on an early evening bus to the Westside recently when she saw a teen-age mother strike her toddler hard and needlessly. Then the girl called her child a vulgar name.

At that, two women leaped out of their seats and lectured the girl not to treat her child that way. All the passengers were staring disapprovingly. "At first," the commuter recalled, "She was, 'You old women can drop dead.' Then she realized she didn't have a friend on that bus."

If the child is old enough to talk, people can give him or her a sympathetic, this-is-not-your-fault look, or even address the child directly. Said Tilton: "If it appears the child is truly damaged emotionally, you can say, "How are you doing, kid?' "

Some abused children, she said, hang on to any positive message the rest of their lives.

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