How to protect ourselves when reporting child abuse at a neighbour?
June 7, 2009 5:00 PM   Subscribe

Best way to handle reporting (suspected) child abuse at our only neighbour?

Note: the question is how to sensibly and safely report this, NOT IF we should report this!

We moved to a rural house this year and we basically have one neighbour (couple with two boys...about 7 and 9 years old, I guess). We can hear them from our place. Or, more accurately, we can hear her shrieking harpy yell from our place about 250 feet away. The husband doesn't yell as far as I can hear.

Today was bad...things like "CLEAN THIS FUCKING ROOM OR YOU'RE GOING TO GET A FIST IN THE FUCKING FACE!". Yes, it's abuse, but I don't know for sure that it really got physical. The yelling went on for quite a while, then the music started (appropriately, "Helter Skelter" was played) but didn't drown out the verbal abuse. During all this, the husband left in his pickup, so I'm certain it was directed at the kids and not him.

Given that they are our only neighbour within hearing distance and we are quite rural, if the police or social services arrives, it's going to clear that we are the ones who called. I'm concerned about retribution. I could easily see them doing something, from what I can tell of their/her temperament.

So, my plan is to call police during the next incident. What can I do to protect myself/my family/my property afterward? Or am I being overly concerned about myself in a case where their kids should be primary? Thanks for advice.
posted by Kickstart70 to Human Relations (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This reads like an undergraduate ethics exam question.

Well, obviously, you have a moral obligation to stop child abuse if you really think child abuse is happening. Then take whatever steps are necessary to protect your property (guns, video surveillance, fence, alarm system, etc.).

My question, however, is whether there's anything more than yelling. I am not sure social services would take kids away, or intervene at all, if there's no evidence of physical or sexual abuse. So: have you ever seen signs of physical abuse? If not, then you may be justified in leaving it alone.
posted by jayder at 5:13 PM on June 7, 2009

Consider calling childservices (tomorrow morning?) instead of the police during the next incident. The thing is, if the police determine there's no crime being committed at that time, then their job is done-ish. They might report to child services, but they might not. It's not really their job to investigate on-going abuse.

Also, it's possible that child-services can say they have reason to investigate rather than explaining that someone just called the police. They may still guess it's you (or it may be that child services has to say it's a neighbour). If they don't actually say it's a neighbour who called then you have plausible deniability: could have been someone from one of the kids' schools, a friend of the kids, friend of the family, doctor, teacher, or whoever.

And ultimately it would be child services' job to investigate anyway, so best to go straight to them.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:16 PM on June 7, 2009

I don't think it would be completely obvious it was you. If the kids are attending school, I would think it would be just as likely that a teacher or school administrator had made the report. In any case, request to be kept anonymous and they would never know for sure it was you.

Honestly, sadly, it's been my personal experience (CA) that without proof of physical violence CPS won't do any follow up unless there have been multiple previous reports so this may all be a moot point anyway. I work in a school so I've made quite a few reports and I've been quite shocked and disillusioned that even some cases involving physical violence resulted in no consequences for the parents just because the kids didn't have marks or bruises on the day the social worker visited. I'm not sure where you live, so that may not apply to you. But definitely call, at least you might be able to help establish a pattern.
posted by Nickel at 5:19 PM on June 7, 2009

Why not try to get to know the kids? You can do this, easily, by simply being neighborly. If there is actual abuse going on, it will be evident fairly quickly. (It's hard to hide the effects of punches to the face.)
posted by oddman at 5:23 PM on June 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

... a case where their kids should be primary?

Yes, this.
What will reporting the family to CPS do? What will happen? Worst case? Best case?
Do you know?
If you don't know whether it will help, why are you determined to do it?

Obviously you are sickened by the verbal abuse you're hearing and want to help. But CPS may not be able to help, and your calling them may make things worse. You could call Childhelp (800-4-ACHILD), and get their advice. They can give you the info you need to decide how best to proceed.
posted by Methylviolet at 5:26 PM on June 7, 2009

Given that they are our only neighbour within hearing distance and we are quite rural, if the police or social services arrives, it's going to clear that we are the ones who called. I'm concerned about retribution. I could easily see them doing something, from what I can tell of their/her temperament.

This is good thinking ahead because I agree they will probably finger you if there's been any sort of contact in the past, and there's a fairly substantial chance that you may be looking at petty vandalism, if not simply yelling and cursing or beer bottles thrown from across the fence. I'd be thinking along the lines of either a cheap webcam in a window that records 24/7, and/or a wireless motion detector so you can be aware of what's going on outside (we use one for our rural driveway, for example). I'd also plan to be vigilant during the first night or two for peculiar stuff going on.

Whether reporting is a good idea and the ethics of doing so, that's beyond the scope of my reply and I'll leave that to others. I'd also be looking at avenues for deflecting it, i.e. to see if any investigation can be launched from the kids' school (maybe talking to someone there to see if they can be alert to bruises and so forth) or elsewhere outside the neighborhood, though how to do that I'm not sure and it's not something I'd do lightly.
posted by crapmatic at 5:32 PM on June 7, 2009

You're in BC, and the Ministry of Children & Family Development has an informational booklet just for you, plus numbers to call.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 5:32 PM on June 7, 2009

Child services may be able to approach with more tact than law enforcement. Don't call the police. Sure, it may stop or pause the situation, but it's a very real possibility that it may mean the kids being forced to learn to be beaten in silence. I speak from experience.
posted by zerokey at 5:53 PM on June 7, 2009

Passing over the "what good will it do/will they actually intervene" stuff, I'd say be prepared for a face to face confrontation. What exactly can you tell about their/her temperament? Threatening a family member (a child no less) and threatening a neighbor are miles apart. Most likely scenario, petty vandalism that will require vigilance. Do you have motion detector lights? If not and you don't want them, go with the webcam suggestions and use them to monitor your vehicles and the side of the property that faces your neighbors. At the least you'll catch them coming and going. But prepare, mentally, for the worst case scenario.
posted by Roman Graves at 6:02 PM on June 7, 2009

Yes, don't be disillusioned to find out that a child welfare worker came to visit the home and no drastic intervention took place. If they have food in the house, and the children don't look malnourished or show signs of physical abuse there probably won't be much done beyond perhaps a referral to an agency where the family would be encouraged to voluntarily engage some therapeutic or supportive services.

Are the children enrolled in school? If so, I think the parents are more likely to think it was a teacher who made the call to child welfare. I also think that the most likely recipient of retribution for child welfare visits are the children, as the abuser will likely want to find out from them who they told about what's going on in the home. So, yeah, you want to weigh this kind of decision pretty carefully before putting yourself in the equation. This is why I would second contacting someone at the school first and putting it on their radar if you're not comfortable with calling the police the next time there's a domestic disturbance and letting them handle the child welfare referral if they think there needs to be one.
posted by The Straightener at 6:32 PM on June 7, 2009

Child services may be able to approach with more tact than law enforcement. Don't call the police. Sure, it may stop or pause the situation, but it's a very real possibility that it may mean the kids being forced to learn to be beaten in silence. I speak from experience.

By not calling the police you are effectively not doing anything at all. Your best bet is to call both the police and social services...the police should make a report with social services if there are domestic issues.

That being said, it generally is not illegal to yell at your kids.
posted by C17H19NO3 at 6:46 PM on June 7, 2009

Right, to further elaborate, if you call child welfare they're not necessarily going to come to the home during a flare up of domestic unrest, they're probably going to come during the middle of the day when things are most likely quiet. This is why unless there is some obvious sign of unsuitability in their housing or obvious signs of abuse or neglect on the children themselves the child welfare worker isn't going to have anything to go on other than your report that there's a problem in the home. The fact is that these kinds of calls are often made as retribution themselves in family and neighbor disputes which is why child welfare workers don't go rushing into people's houses and pulling children out based only on these reports. If you call the police during a domestic disturbance the police will at least show up in the heat of the moment, and the fact that there is a domestic disturbance will be documented. The police as mandatory reporters may even call child welfare out on the spot if they think there's reason to, at which point the child welfare investigator will know for a fact that there's a problem that needs to be looked into.
posted by The Straightener at 7:10 PM on June 7, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks all for the advice.

I suspect I won't hear the next scene until next weekend, and when that happens I plan to call the helpline. They're the experts, so I'll let them decide how to handle things. During that, I will express my concern about retribution. I also have an acquaintance who is a police officer who I can connect with and get more advice.
posted by Kickstart70 at 7:45 PM on June 7, 2009

When you call, they can explain to you how the process works. If they contact the family, and the family figures out it's you that called, the kids will still be better off.
posted by theora55 at 7:46 PM on June 7, 2009

I know you prefaced responses with Note: the question is how to sensibly and safely report this, NOT IF we should report this!

Yes, it's abuse, but I don't know for sure that it really got physical- there is abuse and abuse, a shrieking parent does not constitute abuse that any busy child welfare service will categorise as urgent or indeed worth following up. You have no proof that physical abuse is occurring - sounds to me like you have a noisy neighbour situation- and that should be the cause of any complaint- if indeed you wish to make one.

You have no solid evidence that physical abuse is occurring, and there are others in the community, teachers, the family doctor etc far more qualified and closer to the situation than you. Be careful in accusing people of parental abuse. Call the cops on the noisy neighbour, let them take it from there.
posted by mattoxic at 7:55 PM on June 7, 2009

Given some of the comments, I thought I should mention that you're not overreacting at all. This sounds horrible, and threatening a child with a fist in the face is abuse, not just "yelling at your kids." (The booklet linked by ten pounds includes threats in its definition of abuse, so in fact, yelling threats of physical violence at your kids is abuse, at least in BC.)

I'd vote for an immediate call to child welfare, rather than waiting for another incident to call the cops. First, apparently you have a legal duty to do so, according to the booklet. Second, if you call the cops, they'll know it was you, since it will have been in response to the noises coming from the house. They may retaliate, but more likely against the children than against you. The real drawback is that it might interfere with what might be the very best thing you can do: Get to know the kids, if you can. Let them see kindness somewhere. They're almost certainly going to have to stay in that home, but the less their home comprises their world, the better.
posted by palliser at 8:09 PM on June 7, 2009

Sorry, but mattoxic has it. This is a noise complaint, and should be treated as such. Screaming at a kid like that, even cursing, is a form of hideous abuse in my book - but my book is not the legal book. Say you report this to the police - what are you going to say if they ask you "what more do you have, other than hearing screams of the parent?" "Do you hear the child screaming from pain?" Be prepared to answer these questions. Perhaps the best way to approach it is as a noise compliant, and describe exactly what the noise is, so if the cops think it's actionable on child abuse grounds, you got that covered too.

And just to make clear: I find such screaming at a child, utterly reprehensible. I'm just not sure - not being a lawyer who specializes in such matters - if it constitutes child abuse from a legal point of view.
posted by VikingSword at 8:23 PM on June 7, 2009

Not to detract from the seriousness of verbal abuse, but unless it's happening at the moment the child welfare worker arrives there's no way it's going to be captured by the investigation made after the abuse report, and the parents will assuredly deny it. Child welfare investigations are not terribly extensive, they're generally limited to a home inspection to ensure habitability and a visual confirmation of abuse or neglect signs on the child. Most child welfare agencies are under staffed, under funded and already have too heavy caseloads, so I know this sounds bad but the mantra at a lot of child welfare agencies is "close the case." They're really not looking to take on verbal abuse cases, if that's truly the extent of the abuse occurring. This is just based on my experiences with child welfare workers in Philly, but that's the feeling I have.

I'm not saying the OP shouldn't make a call to child welfare, but your expectations of what will happen as a result of it should be pretty low, and you should be prepared to follow up with a discussion of the situation with your cop friend. You should ask him how to file for a stay away order in court, because if you're concerned about retaliation a court order of protection is the next step you're going to need to take. If they violate the order, call the police every single time. If you have the court order the police will likely take the situation more seriously and the response will likely be swifter and there will be consequences for the violation imposed by the court. They'll get the point soon enough, some jail time for violating a protection order has a way of wising up all but the most psychotic of bad neighbors.
posted by The Straightener at 8:27 PM on June 7, 2009

I think you're right Kickstart; it's abuse. The BC government's definition is here. You don't need bruises to be abused.

When one of my sons was about 10 he told me that one of his friends mentioned that he was cut as punishment for misbehaving. I was skeptical, but my son stuck to his story and seemed serious and worried. I didn't know family details such as last names and addresses so I didn't call social services, but I did call the principal of the kids' school the next morning and asked about my son's friend, Billy. The principal knew right away who I was talking about. I mentioned what my son had said. After a brief pause, the principal thanked me and said they had an open file on Billy. My info, which corroborated similar outlandish stories, was enough to get them to make an official complaint. If you know the school the kids attend, give the principal a call. They may be already prepared to call in Family and Child services.

But if they won't, please do. Such yelling might not be abuse in some jurisdictions, but according to the BC gov's website, it's abuse in BC.

Good luck. Could you please post later to let us know what happened?
posted by angiep at 8:57 PM on June 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Straightener makes a good point about making sure you don't think the complaint will magically cure the children's situation. That said, I have indirect knowledge (a parent who has worked 25 years in domestic violence) of the processes in jurisdictions less strained for resources than a city child-welfare department most likely is. What is happening in the home is worse than what you're hearing, and I think the child-welfare people will respond, probably more quickly and thoroughly than they're able to in a major US city. Don't expect miracles, obviously, but don't throw your hands up, either.

And please do update the thread, if you have a chance.
posted by palliser at 9:09 PM on June 7, 2009

Such yelling might not be abuse in some jurisdictions, but according to the BC gov's website, it's abuse in BC.

The question in the real world of social services provision would not be so much whether or not the government lists verbal abuse as abuse on its website but if verbal abuse alone constitutes reason for the government to allocate limited resources to this particular family when there may be other families in the area where investigations are bringing forth clear cases of physical abuse or neglect, or parents that are clearly unfit as a result of alcoholism or addiction or severe, chronic mental illness. That's what a typical child welfare case looks like. I honestly don't know what the answer to this question is in rural BC, Canada, but in Philadelphia the chances of DHS opening a case only on a verbal abuse accusation are basically zero percent.

Now, if there is an investigation there could be game changers discovered upon arrival, like maybe the living room is littered with garbage or empty liquor bottles, which would then make the case not so much about verbal abuse but suitability of housing or ability to care, which are major concerns. If the child welfare worker goes to do an inspection and is refused entry, that's also a huge problem, because the worker will get entry with a police escort but the question is what's happening in the intervening 20 minutes it takes for the cop to show up? Is the parent hustling the kids into clean clothes and scrubbing them up real quick? Is the parent hiding the liquor bottles? Shit, is the parent flushing a half pound of meth down the toilet? You don't know, but the worst is generally assumed, so the final outcome would probably depend on exactly how things go down during the investigation.
posted by The Straightener at 9:14 PM on June 7, 2009

Call child protective services as soon as possible. Call the police during all incidents to file noise complaints. Having this on record with the police will help you prove retaliation if it occurs. Also, document everything you hear. Keep notes with the date, time, and what you heard. These notes may prove useful to both the police and child protective services.
posted by tr0ubley at 9:29 PM on June 7, 2009

The next time the woman and kids leave the house for the grocery, school, shopping, etc (that you know about), call the police and say how you saw some abusive behavior by a woman with this license plate.


Regardless of what kind of behavior/incident you report...the police/cps (hopefully) will do their own investigation and find out whats up.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:58 PM on June 7, 2009

I strongly second troubley's advice to document everything. I was a rape crisis counselor in NY (also dealt with stalking, child abuse, etc.) and learned that documenting events is the single greatest thing you can do to protect yourself legally. Unfortunately, these kinds of cases are usually not at the top of most cops' list of priorities -- not necessarily their fault, as many squads are stretched really thin. The more work you do on "the case" yourself the greater your chances are to help those kids -- or yourself, if it comes to that. I don't want to scare you, but you're right in thinking that the kind of people who would threaten their own kids might not shy away from threatening their neighbors.

If you were in NY I would recommend not calling CPS until you knew for certain that there was physical abuse/neglect going on b/c they're just not able to do anything about verbal abuse (which everyone should know by this point is frequently much more damaging than the physical kind, but so it goes . . .). If the regulations in BC are different, however, I encourage you to follow your heart and do what you believe is right. At least a file will get opened on this family -- if it hasn't been already.

On a personal note, I was both physically and verbally abused as a child (along with my two brothers). No one outside of the family knew. One poster recommended that you try to befriend the kids. I definitely second this, if it seems possible. Maybe if you run into the parents you could offer to babysit sometime or something like that. I wouldn't let on to the kids that you know what's going on -- it would be better if you are a good listener and have them tell you themselves. It really, really sounds cheesy, but when you're a kid, having even just one adult in your life who really believes in you, encourages you, and helps you understand that you are a deserving, worthwhile human being can make all the difference. I hate to sound pessimistic (and maybe things are better in Canada -- it wouldn't be the first time), but these kids are likely to go on suffering this abuse until they are at least 18. Govts don't like to split up families. And child abusers generally don't change. This will make your potential presence as a sort of "rock" in these children's lives all the more valuable.
posted by imalaowai at 8:26 PM on June 8, 2009

I think that if you're concerned about the neighbours knowing it was you who called protective services and/or the police, you could perhaps have someone come to your house (a repair man, pizza guy etc.) and then you could plausibly deny that you called anyone.

"Sorry guys, it wasn't us that called. We had a plumber over to fix our sink and he though did tell us he heard a lot of yelling from next door, we never thought anything of it".

This answer might be kind of late...
posted by Anizev at 10:30 AM on June 10, 2009

Response by poster: For followup...called the Children's Helpline today. They took a bunch of info, and 3 police cars showed up at the neighbours shortly after. They didn't stick around long, but hopefully the point was made. This is after 3 days of off-and-on screaming matches between the husband and wife and the occasional loud crying and screaming from at least one kid. After the police left, the harpy next door screamed down "THANK YOU VERY FUCKING MUCH!" at us.

The helpline told us that no one had previously called. Possible, certainly. I suppose the previous owners here did nothing...I can't see that this fighting is brand new.

Thanks all for the advice!
posted by Kickstart70 at 5:34 PM on June 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

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