I think my neighbour is being abused. What should I do?
November 28, 2008 5:30 PM   Subscribe

I think that my downstairs neighbour is being abused by her partner. I want to help her. But I'm not sure of the facts - I have no evidence. I don't know what to do.

The flat downstairs was rented out about 4 months ago, to a woman and her daughter. I've met her once, when I went down to introduce myself (the usual "I live upstairs, please let me know if I'm ever being too loud, or if you ever need anything"). I don't know how old her daughter is.

About 2 months ago, I started hearing noises late at night. The first week or two, I thought it was hysterical laughter (as if she had a couple of friends around with a bottle of wine and they were having a good time). But it now it seems like it happens most nights that I'm home (4-5 nights a week), and it sounds more like hysterical crying, so much so that I can't believe now that I originally thought it was laughter. Sometimes, but not always, I can hear a bloke's voice, sounding angry and yelling. I can't hear the words. I haven't heard any violence - that isn't to say it's not happening - chances are I wouldn't have heard it if it was happening. But the crying suggests that it's more than a verbal argument.

I don't know what to do. I think she's in a bad relationship, and is being abused, possibly / probably physically. The thought that something bad is happening so close to me is eating me up inside. If she was my friend, or if I was in that situation, I'd want someone to help me.

But I don't know her, I don't know the situation, I have no evidence that there is physical abuse, and I don't want to upset her or make her angry by sticking my nose in where it's not wanted - or make the situation worse. Should I call the police without anything to go on beyond raised voices and crying? Should I try and speak to her? Should I stop being a busybody?
posted by finding.perdita to Human Relations (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, call the police and tell them you are concerned for the reasons mentioned. It is their job to figure this out and take it serious.
posted by Brennus at 5:57 PM on November 28, 2008

In the situation, I would try to find a reputable women's shelter or domestic abuse hotline and ask them; they might even have case managers to take it on. They know what the law can and cannot do, and they'll more likely know how to work a situation in a way that does not bring more abuse onto the victim for it.

Don't remain silent on it, though. Reporting what might somehow even be a misunderstanding is far better than not reporting abuse that is likely to continue and possibly could turn into something even more tragic.
posted by troybob at 6:03 PM on November 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

No, you shouldn't go to the police about this with allegations of abuse when all you have to go by is voices.

There are plenty of things that could be causing the noises that aren't abuse. She could be having a hard emotional time and someone is coming over to help and she cries. She could like the kind of movies with those kind of scenes in them. It could be something completely different that just sounds like abuse by the time it reaches your ears.

I'd go downstairs and ask her what the noise is. If it's something innocent (or otherwise controllable) then it should stop/slow down a lot.

At least in the US (IIRC from a Criminal Justice System class I took last semester) when a call is made about abuse, then someone has to get taken to the police station. Would you want to have that happen because the woman and her daughter were watching a sad movie?
posted by theichibun at 6:21 PM on November 28, 2008

At least in the US (IIRC from a Criminal Justice System class I took last semester) when a call is made about abuse, then someone has to get taken to the police station.

This isn't true. A few years ago, the people living in the apartment next to mine got in a horrible argument. I could hear him punching and beating her, so I called the cops. They came and I could hear a little of what they talked about. The guy obviously didn't let the cop in and just talked to him at the front door. I even heard the cop ask if that was blood he was seeing on a doorknob in the background. The guy didn't get taken to jail and the cop left.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:31 PM on November 28, 2008

I've been in a similar situation before. I consistently heard crying coming from upstairs, so one night I simply went and knocked on the door and asked the woman if everything was ok, that I'd heard noises that sounded troublesome. I basically kind of played dumb, but still made it clear the noises had been noticed. The woman implied her children had been arguing or something, but I couldn' tell if it was convincing. They moved away not long after that so I'm not sure what the reality was.

In short, if you consistently hear crying that's upsetting, I don't think there's anything wrong with knocking on the door and asking if everything's alright, just out of concern. It may not provide an answer, but may provide clues. And if the clues suggest something dire, the police may need to be notified.
posted by deern the headlice at 6:33 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

At least in the US (IIRC from a Criminal Justice System class I took last semester) when a call is made about abuse, then someone has to get taken to the police station.

I think you're mistaken. If the responding officers have cause to believe there was domestic violence, then someone is getting arrested. "Cause to believe" means more than just receiving a call from a neighbour who says there's loud crying going on. They wouldn't arrest anyone if they get there and notice that all the crying is because of Beaches on DVD.
posted by CKmtl at 6:34 PM on November 28, 2008

Movies are not usually that difficult to hear as movies - unless it's a completely silent movie, or they're watching with headphones on, you'd hear a lot more voices and possibly even music.

The danger with coming down and trying to investigate yourself is that, if it is abuse and the abuser becomes aware that his/her victim is bringing attention, you've no idea how much worse it may get. It may become a lot quieter, yes. But there could be a lot of bad reasons for the noise level to decrease after your poking.

I'd add another vote to the call-an-abuse-hotline suggestion, with another vote into the don't-remain-silent bucket. If you think you have a reason to be concerned, it's better to feel silly and be mistaken than live with guilt later.
posted by Bakuun at 6:37 PM on November 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I see you're getting a lot of differing opinions. It's fairly normal (which is sad) for the police to be called to investigate a domestic disturbance. It's disturbing the neighbors and it's an issue for the police. The comment above about "somebody has to get arrested" when the police are called is naive and simplistic. Seconding Brennus, this is something that the police handle, and often.
posted by JimN2TAW at 6:39 PM on November 28, 2008

If it helps, I'm in London - so UK laws apply, and DV is, in theory, taken seriously by the police (they can now make an arrest without the victim pressing charges, but are under no obligation to do so).

And to clarify, it's not "watching a sad movie" type crying. I cry when watching sad movies. But not in a noisy, hysterical way, and not for 2 hours straight, and not 4+ nights a week (which is what I'm hearing). I'm pretty sure that she's not watching Beaches on DVD every night.

Some very diverse opinions here - please, keep them coming. I'm still feeling confused and conflicted...
posted by finding.perdita at 6:58 PM on November 28, 2008

Here's what I would do. Keep in mind that I am not a police officer, a lawyer, or a mental health professional.

I would talk to the woman when the guy isn't around, and preferably when the daughter isn't there either. I would ask to borrow a cup of milk or something and act concerned about the crying I'd been hearing. I'd ask if everything was alright. In short, I'd be a friend to her, and if anything indicated she was being abused, I'd encourage her to call the domestic violence hotline. If she wouldn't do it, I'd call it and ask them what my next step should be.
posted by desjardins at 7:20 PM on November 28, 2008 [6 favorites]

Oh, and I would NOT go down there DURING the incident, as it could get much worse for her, or turn on you.
posted by desjardins at 7:21 PM on November 28, 2008

Cops. I lived in London and rode with the cops for many weeks while making a film. They are good at this stuff.
posted by unSane at 7:35 PM on November 28, 2008

Another vote for reporting it. Think of it this way--if the cries you were hearing were coming from a possibly abused child, would that make you more likely to call someone? A possibly abused woman should not be any different.
posted by phunniemee at 7:36 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

My intuition is to follow desjardin's advice (be a friend to her and see if you can find out what's wrong), or troybob's (call a women's shelter and ask them).

I've known two people who called the cops on their neighbours in similar situations. In the first case, the cops came and on that particular occasion it happened that it wasn't abuse, even though my friend still believes (as I do) that abuse had occurred at different times. But because there had been no sign of it the first time, the cops refused to come on a second call to the house.

The other time, the cops came, and afterward it was a Stockholm Syndrome deal: the (legitimately abused) woman stormed over to my friend and attacked her for reporting it.
posted by Beardman at 7:51 PM on November 28, 2008

I think you need to talk her.

It is very understandable and commendable that people want to be so vigilant about preventing domestic abuse. But the bottom line here is this:


You say yourself you have no evidence a crime is occurring. If it is something else, like a mental health situation, jumping the gun by calling the cops could backfire in all kinds of ways.

Get her alone and talk to her. Unless you feel physically unsafe doing so, talking should always be option number one.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:53 PM on November 28, 2008

I think you should call the cops, and just tell them that you're hearing some odd noises from the unit. In fact, you've been hearing these noises for a while.

And then it's up to the cops.
posted by Xianny at 8:30 PM on November 28, 2008

Ask the other neighbours ?
posted by Xhris at 9:12 PM on November 28, 2008

Although I don't want to dissuade you from calling the cops, I want to suggest that the police in your area may handle the situation much different than those in another area. This is why I would highly recommend talking to the local abuse shelter or hotline in your area that deals with these issues on a regular basis.

In my own experience as a victim of abuse, I found out that my local police force would've handled my case drastically differently than the campus police who actually dealt with my case. The latter dealt with fewer abuse cases over all and was not well-equipped to handle a case where a female abused a male, telling me to "man up." They also made mistakes that more experienced officers would not have made. I know that in other situations, two police officers within the same department may make a completely different assessment of whether an arrest is necessary. Sometimes one may be completely lacksadaisical where another is overzealous.

This is why it can be wise to consult with your local shelter. Knowing the facts about your local laws and law enforcement agencies can give you a better feel about when they should be contacted and whether it may be wise to discuss the situation with the victim before the authorities are called in. Sometimes it's necessary to involve the police against the wishes of the victim, but you want to make sure that your strategy doesn't make the situation worse.
posted by abkadefgee at 10:05 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Another vote for calling the cops. That's their job.
posted by ms.v. at 10:10 PM on November 28, 2008

Call the cops. Explain the situation in detail. Don't demand action, just give them the facts. I was in a similar situation and did nothing. I regret it.
posted by chairface at 11:41 PM on November 28, 2008

At least take the situation to someone who has the ability to assess the information and make an informed decision. The possible consequences of doing nothing here would seem greater in magnitude than some embarrassment or anger over a misunderstanding. And really, how much worse can you make the situation, if it is indeed abusive, by reporting it?

If this is truly domestic abuse, by taking some kind of action, you at least know there's a chance it can be prevented in the future; if you do nothing, that chance disappears, and you have no reason to think it will not continue or even escalate.

Or from a different perspective, consider the sense of power or feeling of justification it gives to an abuser that others are too scared or embarrassed to report it. You could very well be hearing abuse today because someone else failed to do something about it six months ago, or five years ago.
posted by troybob at 11:49 PM on November 28, 2008

According to this, the English National Domestic Violence Hotline is 0808 2000 247.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:18 AM on November 29, 2008

Just to let you know, the police will come, ask permission to go inside the house to inspect it, and then will walk straight to your door to tell you what they are going to do about this complaint you just made.
This happened to me (here in the UK 4 years ago) when I complained some neighbours from hell and the screams from the kids being physically abused were heart-rending.
I found out from a police friend later that they do this to discourage malicious calls.
When they came over to me they informed me that while one of the children was obviously upset, the parents had said he was fighting with his younger sister over the Playstation and it got physical. Otherwise the house looked clean and well-kept and there was food in the cupboards (so if you want to beat up your kids regularly in the UK, that's what you have to do).
Of course as soon as those parents saw I was the one complaining, a year of harrassment, bullying of my children, damage to my property etc., etc., began which culminated in an attack on me.
So yes, the police here in the UK take DV seriously and they will investigate, but if I were you I would go to the station in person to make the complaint and ask that you not be identified.
posted by Wilder at 1:38 AM on November 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh, just to say, I'm saying you should report this, and despite my experience I would do so again, but I'd be wiser in HOW I reported it. While I had seen a pattern of behaviour over 6 months that made me certain this was abuse, the police just got one brief chat and inspection. All the other neighbours were quite elderly and to be frank they were terrified of the couple so no-one else complained.
posted by Wilder at 1:42 AM on November 29, 2008

I got the same number (0808 2000 247), and a FAQ from the same group (womens aid .uk.org) even has a question about "I think my neighbor is being abused, what should I do?" It's inconclusive along the same lines as the answers above. (Reach out to her, particularly if you can do so safely, and definitely contact the cops if you hear something going on.) In searching, it seems like a couple DV organizations have campaigns that specifically try to get neighbors to call the cops (eg, eg).
posted by salvia at 2:15 AM on November 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Talk to her, watch, learn, and just be a good neighbour. If she's being abused, she isn't likely to tell you, a relative stranger, about it all... particularly if she is supposed to be living there on her own. You haven't mentioned if you're living in housing association flats or private ones, but even the fact that she's a lone parent might be a barrier to any sort of discussion about possible abuse. With all the talk these days about reporting benefit thieves, if she's pulling down any sort of lone parent benefit she isn't going to talk to someone she doesn't know about any possible fella living there with her, is she?

You haven't mentioned anything about her circumstances before moving in to the new flat. For all you know, it might be her on the phone to a family member or an ex partner, getting into fights or getting upset. It might be her, waiting until her daughter is asleep to cry in the bath because she's stressed out about being a single mom. Or it may well be abuse. My point is that you won't know either way unless you talk to her. It sounds like she could use a friend more than anything else. Just be that friend, if you can, and let things run their course.

Well done, you, though for caring so much about the well being of a woman you barely know! x
posted by Grrlscout at 7:05 AM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

One reason for the differing opinions may be that we have differing views of the reason for calling someone, be it the neighbour, the police, a charitable agency, or whatever.

Perhaps it's more useful to focus on the offense itself--your right to live in peace without this sort of noise and disturbance nearby. If the noise were an incredibly loud 24-hour party you would surely phone the police (after perhaps the residential management, if any). You don't need to go through all this analysis and agony when reporting a disturbance.

But, if you do want to get involved with your neighbours' lives, and take personal resposibility for tailoring the perfect intervention plan, then by all means call a specialized local hotline who will give you better advice than we can. Best of luck in either case.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:20 AM on November 29, 2008

Do not talk to her, do not become involved in their lives, you do not want to become a target for the possibly abusive male. Do call the police if their noise upsets you. Do not listen to theichiban: I had downstairs neighbors that sounded like they were just partying a bit too loudly, turned out they were gang raping a female friend of theirs. People told me I was being overly sensitive for calling the police, and I really wish that had been the case. Victims don't always scream bloody murder.
posted by zarah at 12:38 PM on November 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you call the cops, make sure you can in no way be identified. They WILL do what Wilder described. Do not use a number that they will be able to identify as yours, and if they knock on your door in the course of the investigation, don't answer.

If some guy is beating his girlfriend, you don't want to be in his line of sight.
posted by winna at 1:00 AM on November 30, 2008

Final update from the OP:
I want to leave a final post on this thread so that anyone searching for domestic abuse on AskMeFi doesn't think that nothing was done. I spoke to my neighbor and gave her a phone number for a DV hotline. Her english wasn't good so I'm not sure she understood. I called the police twice. The first time they were not particularly helpful, the second time they were more receptive. I don't know what happened - they moved out a few months later. But I am glad that I tried to talk to her, and I'm glad that I called the police. I wouldn't have it any other way. I don't know if I made a difference, but I was NOT going to ignore the situation.
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