He's your kid, do as you see fit
December 31, 2014 1:29 AM   Subscribe

Is our neighbour's child being emotionally abused, and if so, what can I do about it?

My husband and I live in a flat in outer London. Our downstairs neighbours have two children, and there is very little soundproofing between the flats. Recently the younger child, who I think is about 7, seems to have been going through a difficult time. I have heard him crying for long periods. His mother responds by screaming at him, telling him to "shut up," calling him a "selfish little boy" and ordering him to "get out of my living room/house." (I have not actually seen him being thrown out; if it did happen in the freezing temperatures we've been having, I would call the police.) On one occasion the boy complained the older child had been making fun of him, and the mother replied to the effect that he deserved it.

I don't have children myself, and due to my own history I can't always tell where the line between normal-but-harsh parenting and emotional abuse lies. Is this child's treatment likely to amount to abuse, and if so, what if anything can I do?

If the authorities got involved, the parents would likely know who had alerted them. We have not had a good relationship with them in the past, with the father at times showing aggressive and harassing behaviour (for example, paying repeated unwanted visits, or telling us that he can see through our windows from his garden and knows our daily routine). I don't want to be the bystander who does nothing while a child suffers, but my first priority must be my husband's and my safety.

Any advice or insight would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
posted by Perodicticus potto to Law & Government (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know which school he goes to? If so, you could speak to someone at his school and let them know your concerns that this boy might be in a vulnerable situation.
posted by essexjan at 2:32 AM on December 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

Hmm. As a survivor of childhood abuse, I would be strongly moved to intervene appropriately in your position.

I do not know how to effectively and safely do this in your particular jurisdiction.

Depending where you are, this may or may not be handled appropriately.

Who knows what the situation is? The boy may be acting out due to environment OR his own internal reasons. It does sound like his parents do not have the skills to cope well with him. This may be a phase that will resolve without intervention. This may require intervention and parenting classes or other support.

Just telling you what you describe is in the territory of abuse, as I personally experienced it, if your description is accurate. More than that, I can not say.
posted by jbenben at 2:33 AM on December 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You absolutely can call child welfare services anonymously and they'll treat it anonymously – if they visit the child's home they will not visit yours, hint that it was you, etc.

Action for Children UK has a direct answer to your question.

UK National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has a free hotline with counselors available to talk about just this sort of thing as well.
posted by fraula at 2:34 AM on December 31, 2014 [11 favorites]

But even if it was anonymous, it is possible that the way their homes are set up, it would be obvious that it was the neighbors.
posted by k8t at 2:39 AM on December 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've had this question myself and I found this to be informative: Defining Abuse (Clermont CPS website)
posted by ana scoot at 2:41 AM on December 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mumsnet, the UK parenting forum, has two forums that might help give you a local overview: Ethical dilemmas and What would you do?. They're generally sensible people and can tell you how the local authorities in your area would intervene and the consequences for the child and you. You probably will be advised to go talk to the local police as well if they've already harassed you in the past.
posted by viggorlijah at 2:42 AM on December 31, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I'd report it. Who knows if any action would be taken, or if the neighbors would be any worse than they already are, you can cross that bridge when you come to it. But I'd rather report it and know that I tried to help, than worry and wonder.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:42 AM on December 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in the US and a mandated reporter but there's some similarity in how these things are handled where you are.

You contact the Children's Aid Society and explain everything you've heard to them. But what you need to understand is that agencies like CAS are ultimately deciding if a child needs to be removed from their home because they're in danger. So, you call. You can remain anonymous. If a child is felt to be in immediate danger (like, you witnessed a parent breaking their arm), then the police are often contacted. If it's a bad situation but the kid isn't in immediate danger (like you know they don't feed or bathe or clothe the kids enough), a child services worker is assigned the case and the case goes into a queue of "to be investigated when they get to the top of the list."

If a child is being yelled at, they may not investigate because in general, there are already too many kids living in dangerous conditions and not enough workers to help them.

What you describe sounds pretty awful, but it would not have a child removed and placed into foster care.

But you report it anyway. If investigated, the agency will usually contact the school for information. They may visit the home to ensure the child is safe and determine if they need to be removed. The parents will never be told who made the call (they may assume it was the school) and you will never be informed of the outcome. Chances are that nothing will happen.

That's the "contacting the authorities and what to expect" response.

As far as, "but what if they know it was me and they get mad," question, the Capital T Truth is that if you think a child is being abused, then you help that child. That's all there is to it. You can call authorities and get help for yourself if needed; a child can't.

Now I am going to suggest something scary. You can go over there when there's no yelling and just talk to the mom. Tell her that you can hear her frustration with her son. Tell her you're sorry that she's overwhelmed. Offer to take him to the park or whatever. Offer to hang out with her a bit for tea. Doing this may feel scary, but I would bet that this mom could use some positive support. Maybe you can offer some comfort and compassion to her and by extension, her kid.
posted by kinetic at 5:22 AM on December 31, 2014 [37 favorites]

Your neighbor sounds like a lousy mum, but you're walking a very fine line here between wanting to look out for a child and respecting the privacy of others. You say this has been happening "recently"- how recently? Is there anything to suggest it's part of a longer-term pattern?

Honestly, there's nothing going on here, IMO, that indicates the child is in any danger, and how other parents raise their children is, frankly, ultimately not your business.

Now I am going to suggest something scary. You can go over there when there's no yelling and just talk to the mom. Tell her that you can hear her frustration with her son. Tell her you're sorry that she's overwhelmed. Offer to take him to the park or whatever. Offer to hang out with her a bit for tea. Doing this may feel scary, but I would bet that this mom could use some positive support. Maybe you can offer some comfort and compassion to her and by extension, her kid.

Best advice in the thread. There are different ways to be a good neighbor.
posted by mkultra at 5:42 AM on December 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

Oh, goodness...I agree with kinetic and mkultra.

I was an abused child. Both of my parents were beaten by their parents, and like you say, OP, "do as you see fit" was the prevailing wisdom.

I agree with kinetic and mkultra because I think a caring, sane adult would have done wonders for me and my sister. I don't think the system would have worked as well as a good old-fashioned "village." I went to college and left my sister there. With them. I'll never forgive myself.

I wish someone would have helped me. I so so so wish someone had helped me.
posted by Punctual at 5:59 AM on December 31, 2014 [10 favorites]

What OP is describing sounds like abuse to me; no child should have to hear such harsh words from their parents. Furthermore, this might only be the tip of the iceberg. We don't know what else that poor kid is suffering. Call the cops. Shit like this is why you pay taxes.
posted by starbreaker at 6:17 AM on December 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

I would classify that as abusive parenting, yes. The father's aggression actually makes me more worried for the kid than for you.
posted by jaguar at 7:17 AM on December 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Chiming in to agree with consensus that you should call the appropriate branch of child services.
posted by dejah420 at 8:13 AM on December 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Say the child was removed from the home and placed in much more dangerous circumstances. The only thing that would be changed for the better is that you would not know about it and could tell yourself you had done something good for the child.

Verbally abuse parents who still take care of their child may be better than some alternatives. I vote for the previous solution of stopping by once in a while. Maybe offer to babysit once a week or bring by some cookies. It might not be "your problem" so you might not want to do this, but then I'm not sure you have the level of commitment to the situation to involve yourself.

But ultimately only you know best about what to do.
posted by cacao at 8:23 AM on December 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

As another survivor of child abuse, I would amend kinetic's fantastic advice to remove any mention of the mother's frustration. Just bring over a plate of cookies and invite them all into your home. Do not invade their space. And trust me, there is huge potential for inviting yourself in to feel like an invasion.

When other families knew what was happening in our family, things got worse for me and my siblings. Our parents blamed us for other people seeing us get beaten on the street(so, not rational).

Of course, a rational adult knows it's not the kids' fault that you've figured out things are going badly. But what adult is rational 100% of the time?

Spoiler: not many. That ratio is even more skewed among people who abuse children.
posted by bilabial at 8:29 AM on December 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in the US, so YMMV, but, these days, it's not a matter of "If you call child protective services, they'll swoop in and take the kid away and he'll be put in a foster home straight out of Dickens!" The emphasis today is on keeping families together and helping parents to cope. And, if a child has to go into foster care, "kinship care" - that is, placing the child with a grandparent, aunt or uncle - is the first option chosen. Usually, children are whisked away to foster care right away only if they are in immediate danger (parents starving them or keeping them chained in a closet or something else extremely abusive).

Many times, what will happen if CPS investigates and finds something to worry about, is the parents will be sent to parenting classes. If parents yell at and verbally abuse their kids because they don't know any better or just can't cope well, this may be what is needed to improve the child's situation.

So, don't feel like you are making things worse if you call. Kids need people to stand up for them, and to let them know that any abuse they suffer is not deserved. Kinetic's and Bilabial's advice to reach out to the family is a good one, too - if the parents are just overburdened and underfriended, social support will mean a lot (and might be what is needed to help the kid).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:10 AM on December 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Befriending the adults is not really an option (I have tried before), but I will explain to the appropriate people exactly what I have observed and let them decide if it's worth following up on.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 11:05 AM on December 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm in a similar situation and posted this question a few months ago. Many people in that thread said that the only solution for me would be to move, and that's probably correct, although my circumstances have made that impractical. At the time I was waiting to find out whether my contract at work would be renewed... since it is, I'm going to buy a house and would not want to be forced out of my convenient month-to-month lease. If it had not been, I would have moved out of state for another job by now.

This is how things have progressed:
-- The next day I called CPS again. They seemed annoyed that I was calling them rather than the police, not understanding that I didn't want to get the kid in trouble, I wanted someone to know he had behavioral issues -- perhaps arising from the continuing abuse! -- that were going to get him in trouble eventually. They also did not appreciate the possible food angle.
-- A few weeks later, the day after a particularly bad night of physical abuse, I made a police report in person. They would not accept the thumb drive with audio recordings of the abuse and told me to call 911 if I heard it again.
-- I called 911 the next time. An officer knocked on their door and talked to them for a while. He then knocked on my door and came into my apartment to talk. He said that the kid was in underwear and he hadn't been able to see any marks. He also would not accept the audio recordings, but he asked me to email them and said he was going to follow up with the county police (he was with the town), because they interface with social services. I sent them and he responded, thanking me and promising to follow up. I never heard from him again. I had stayed up until 3 am figuring out how to cut down the audio files into snippets below gmail's 25-MB limit. The next day I had to give a presentation at work while exhausted, shaken and distracted.
-- At this point I contacted my landlord and explained the situation. I also told him that I was going to have to move if it continued. He said that he wished I'd told him sooner. I overheard him having a heated conversation with the mother -- apparently he'd already been annoyed because other tenants have complained about the kid's behavior, e.g. leaving trash and spills around and apparently yanking down the clothesline. I was and still am extremely conflicted about the possibility of him evicting them: I don't want the child to be homeless, but I don't imagine that the tenant who replaced me would enjoy being woken up by a child wailing in pain any more than I do. I have to weigh this every time there is an incident and I am deciding what to do.
-- This Monday evening I called the police again. Three officers responded. While they were presumably examining the boy, the mother knocked on my door. She asked if I had been reporting them and I said yes. I think that at some point she actually said, "I'm not beating him, I'm whooping him" ... surreal. Corporal punishment is legal here, so apparently it's not "abuse" unless it leaves a mark. The officers told me they had seen no marks. I asked what else I was supposed to do when I heard a child in obvious distress, and one said, "You know, he's like, 12, he's probably just making a bigger deal of it than it is." The direct conversation with the mother was where the situation jumped the shark for me. I stayed in a hotel Monday night but barely slept. Every time I envisioned finding my tires slashed, or having to use the mace my mother sent me, or seeing the mother in the hallway, or hearing more abuse and having to decide what to do, my heart began to pound. I was useless at work yesterday and handled a politically tricky conversation... less than ideally.

Of the police and social workers I've spoken with, some have been concerned and some have acted as though I'm a nuisance. But nothing has happened to change the situation. I've included the details in small font to illustrate the effect this has had on my life. I've done nothing to invite this level of drama other than refusing to move -- which would compromise my personal goals and finances -- and also refusing to turn a blind ear to the abuse. You would think that abuse with a physical component would be more straightforward to substantiate than the emotional kind in your case (which I completely agree is abuse, and equally harmful). Maybe things will be handled differently in your country. I absolutely agree that you should report it, because what else can you do? But you should also have a plan for extracting yourselves in case the situation becomes uncomfortable for you.

Anyway, feel free to memail me if you ever want to vent. Best of luck.
posted by ecsh at 4:36 PM on December 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

« Older Question about markings on an old map.   |   Overdid it at the Gym, destroyed my back Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.