We've all been there. You see an adult carrying a screaming kid from the store, and something just doesn't sit right. All of your mom instincts kick into high gear as you size up the situation. Does that child actually belong to that adult? You've witnessed a rougher-than-necessary exchange between an adult and a child. Is that a regular thing or an accident? The little girl in the back of the car in the drive-through looks downright terrified. Is she being abducted — or are you misreading cues?
The world is a scary place full of scary people. The world is also a scary place full of not-so-scary people and children who aren't great at processing their emotions. It's hard to know when you're actually witnessing a crime and when you're just catching an odd moment in someone's bad day. The last thing you would ever want is to make another parent's bad day even worse by adding in an altercation with a police officer. But... isn't it better to be safe than sorry?
Knowing what to do when you see a child in danger can not only save a life but also put your mind at ease the next time you're just not sure what you saw.
What to Do When You Think a Child Is in Danger
To that end, Scary Mommy asked Rick Musson, a 20-year law enforcement officer consultant with Clearsurance.com (and dad of five), to share some practical and potentially lifesaving tips on what to do if you believe you see a child at risk.
Consider the situation from all perspectives.
Hard truth: Just because you don't like it doesn't mean it's against the law. Did you just witness a screaming child being picked up and plopped into a car seat? It's hard to know if they're merely having a temper tantrum or something far more sinister, like being abducted. You might also be uneasy about how the caregiver in question handled the child.
"First, you need to evaluate whether the situation is dangerous for the child or not," shares Musson. "Law enforcement often gets called to cases where there is nothing wrong going on. Sometimes, for example, following an exasperating trip to the grocery store, a parent could be at their wit's end and order their screaming child into the car. If the child doesn't comply, they may physically pick the child up and put them in the car. While this situation isn't comfortable to observe, it's not illegal for a parent to go against their child's wishes and force them into their car. So, before you conclude that something dangerous could happen to a child, try to look at the situation from a different perspective."
Talk to your source of concern.
"If you suspect an older child is in danger, keep your eye on them," says Musson. "If you have an opportunity to speak to them out of sight and earshot of the adults, you should ask them if they need help and gauge your next step by their response. Interfering in a dangerous situation could put you and the child at greater risk, so try to stay under the radar when ascertaining whether the problem needs intervention. Sometimes being a very observant witness is the best thing you can do."
Need to get the kid alone? Ask for help. Ask for a recommendation on a toy, shirt, snack, or something for "a niece/nephew about your age." Then ask them for help with something more specific so that you can get them closer. "He only wears organic cotton. How can I tell? I don't have my glasses. Can you read this tag?" Once they're close, a simple, whispered, "Are you OK?" or "Are you in danger?" will be enough to get an answer you need to know if you need to alert authorities or not.
Musson also elaborates that sometimes the best thing you can do is be an active, diligent observer.
"Try to take note of language and visual events so you can provide a good description of the child, including physical features and clothing, a description of the adults, and vehicle descriptions with license plates," Musson says. "If those involved drive away, take note of the road and direction of travel they take. A good witness should also be able to give a clear explanation of why they believe the child is in danger. Having a feeling about someone isn't enough for law enforcement to take action, but a specific observation can dramatically alter law enforcement's response."
What to Do If You See a Wandering Child
Big, chaotic events are full of wandering, free-range children. If you're a parent, you probably know that kids tend to follow other kids or follow along with whatever catches their eye at the moment. A quick internet search of “child wandering alone on road” will yield an unnerving number of recent news reports telling tales of wayfaring young children.
So, what should you do if you're ever out and about and see a child wandering? First, keep a close watch.
If the child is alone but calm, stay nearby and keep visual contact with the child. You might want to eventually ask them if you can help them find their parent. Or simply ask, "Did you lose your Mommy/Daddy?" Stand with them in one place and look around. Only move from that spot if you can find a law enforcement officer or someone else official to help.
If the child is alone and upset, approach them calmly and ask if you can help. Get on their level. If they're very young, they might not understand many words yet. It's OK to plop down on the ground with them and wait for a parent to spot them.
Most importantly, don't move the child from where you find them. You could easily end up carrying them further from their parents in your attempts to find them.
When to Call for Help — & What You'll Need
Remember those mom instincts mentioned earlier? Listen to them, and try to glean as much information about the situation as you can.
"Trust your gut and look for proof if you think something is wrong. You may notice interactions and specific actions that warrant intervention when you look for it," says Musson. "If you determine something is wrong, you should call the police. And when you call, be prepared to give the description you noted and an explanation of the situation. Likely, law enforcement will make contact with you once the situation has been assessed and action has been taken. You may be asked to provide a statement and contact information so that you can answer further questions if the case proceeds."
Granted, many people are hesitant to call the police these days. At this point in our collective history, we’ve witnessed enough police videos of 911 calls that end tragically to give us pause (even when we’re pretty sure we should make that call). Not to mention, no one wants to be a Karen who calls the police to report unwitting parents just for parenting differently — or just being different, period. But if you genuinely feel as though a child is in danger and have reasonable proof, you should report it to the proper authorities.
If you see a child in immediate and serious danger, call 911. To report suspected child abuse or neglect, you can contact your local protective services office or law enforcement agency or reach out to the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline. If you suspect a child has been abducted or is being trafficked, contact law enforcement and/or the CyberTipline for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
It's important to keep in mind that reporting agencies vary from state to state. So if you'd like to see where you can submit a report, visit RAINN's (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) State Law Database. It's the country's largest anti-sexual violence organization and provides programs that help prevent sexual violence and aid sexual assault survivors.
In any case, if your gut is telling you something is wrong — and what you’re seeing gives you reason to believe that gut feeling is right — it’s worth any extra effort, inconvenience, or discomfort if it saves a child from being harmed.
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