Witnessing Abuse

I sat behind a car at a red light. It was winter in Minneapolis, so my windows were rolled up. I also had the radio on. But still I heard the woman screaming. I turned down my radio, trying to figure out where it was coming from. It was lasting for almost a minute. And then I saw it—the driver in the car ahead of me was turned around in her seat, screaming at the child in the backseat for spilling Coke in the car. How do I know it was a child? Because the person was so small I couldn’t see the head sticking up above the seat. I rolled down my window to better listen, and heard “fuck” “little shit” “pissed” “Goddamnit.” She didn’t yell. She screamed.

I followed the car into the parking lot of a church—a one-story section of a strip mall. I watched as she got out, as an older child stepped out from the front seat, and as a boy about three years old scooted out of the back. He was crying. He didn’t look angry at his mother. He looked ashamed at himself. The other child just looked sad—the empty kind of sad.

I wrote down the name of the church (no smart phone at the time). I didn’t know then that anyone can call the Dept. of Children & Family Services, that verbal abuse is just as damaging as physical abuse.  I’d never heard or seen anything like it in real life. I thought if I called the church, they would find the woman if they didn’t already know her and do something. But when I got home and called, within five minutes of leaving the parking lot, they didn’t know whom I was speaking of. They hadn’t seen the woman I described. Helpless, I hung up the phone. I drove back to the church but her car was gone.

verbal-abuseThat was six years ago and in the years since, I’ve thought of that little boy more than I can tell you. I’ve hoped that she yelled at him like that again in front of someone else, someone who knew what to do—a teacher or a social worker—and got those children away from that mother, at least for the time being. Because if she screams and swears like that over spilled Coke, what else does she do?

That experience has made me more alert when I’m out in the world and I wish I could say I’ve had no use for my new awareness. But I have—a girl at the lake whose mother loudly berated her, for five straight minutes, for getting her skirt wet as she waded in the shallows on a 95-degree day; a toddler at Target whose father sneered at him because he “needed a cracker to shut up,” then yanked the boy’s ear lobe. In each case, I wanted to wrap the children up and take them home with me, but instead I offered kind words, a dry towel, a reprimand within earshot of the toddler in hopes that the boy would start to learn that his father’s actions were wrong. Small things.

I know departments like DCFS are overloaded and they can’t respond to pulled ear lobes. I don’t know what the answers are. But I feel a responsibility for the children who live in the same world I do. Our culture is too much “to each his own,” even regarding parenting. That philosophy might make sense when it comes to time-outs and breastfeeding–even when it comes to giving your toddler Coke. But not when it comes to any form of abuse. “It takes a village” means helping parents, supporting them, but it also means stepping in when you see them hurting their children.

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