How to handle neighbors' verbal abuse of children
July 26, 2017 10:02 PM   Subscribe

At least daily, often multiple times per day, I witness adults across the street shouting, swearing, and putting down their kids. It is awful. I'm unsure of what to do.

Example of what my kids and I witnessed today around 8:00 pm: Mom is in front yard with a few kids ranging in age from 5-15 or so. A car pulls up, she yells "Don't fucking get out of that car. Don't fucking bring them back here, you just got them 10 minutes ago!" Two small boys (4 & 6?) get out of car, which then speeds away and Mom says "What the fuck are you doing here? Just get in the goddamn house!"

The other day it was "What the fuck is wrong with you? You're just like your fucking father!"

There are at least two adults that live in the house, possibly more. There are probably 6-7 kids that appear to live in the (tiny) house. I'm going to call county child protection tomorrow, but from my experience, they don't do anything about verbal abuse.

What else can be done? I've talked with other concerned neighbors, and we're all wondering what to do.
posted by retrofitted to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The best thing to do is also a lot harder than calling an outside authority: try to befriend the family. The kids will appreciate some positive attention, and the adults *may* appreciate the chance to vent about how hard being a parent is. If the adults have any love at all for the kids, you may be able to help bring it out.

You say the authorities won't do anything for verbal abuse. What exactly do you want them to do? Do you think traumatizing these kids by placing them in a foster home or juvenile facility is better than the sort of trauma they are experiencing now? Please don't underestimate how vitally important it is to most kids to stay with mom and dad, no matter how rough their lives may seem to you.
posted by nirblegee at 10:35 PM on July 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I am not suggesting that the kids be placed with a foster home. County services where I live usually involve counseling for the families and programs to help with parenting. Placing children in foster care typically occurs in situations where extreme physical or sexual abuse is happening.
posted by retrofitted at 10:39 PM on July 26, 2017

County services where I live usually involve counseling for the families and programs to help with parenting.

Do they, though? In most places if they intervene at all it's just really disruptive to the family and not much help is really offered. You might want to double check people's experience with your local child protective agency before you go there.

Second befriending the family. It may be a difference in how this neighbor censors their emotions and language more than anything else. I come from a yelling people, my husband comes from a silent people, we've had some real hilarious (narrator: they weren't hilarious) ups and downs working out how to be people around each other and with our kids. Your neighbors may tone down their communication when they realize that real live humans that they know are observing it. And as a bonus, getting to know them better might let you see whether there is anything beyond yelling and profanity to be concerned about.

It's not that I don't think yelling and profanity is abusive because it can be, for sure. It's that perception is also important and the word fuck and a high volume are not in and of themselves abusive in my opinion. Find out what the context is if you can.
posted by padraigin at 11:02 PM on July 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

Say hi and be friendly. We had some rude neighbors who yelled at their kids and each other a lot and stonewalled us but they started responding to us and acting friendlier after we kept saying hello in passing, and they seem a little calmer now even though their complicated divorce/co-parenting situations haven't let up.

I am a little skeptical that you or your neighbors don't want children removed from that house. Even mandatory counseling with implied threat of removal is going to be rough on them and it might just move the yelling indoors.
posted by michaelh at 11:03 PM on July 26, 2017

The idea of befriending people like this makes my skin crawl, but the children do need to know that other people don't think this is ok, and they also need a secure attachment in their life. I'd frankly call their school and ask to speak to their teacher. Teachers spend the most time with the kids and are in the best position to assist. The oldest one of the children may be another person to approach just for reassurance and to offer support. I would not bother with the parents. Why would they stop yelling at their kids just because you befriended them? That sounds exhausting with very little chance of pay off.
posted by benadryl at 11:04 PM on July 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I have tried to make myself known as a safe person in the neighborhood, to this family in particular. The kids aren't allowed to leave their yard and are not allowed to play with my kids (I'm assuming their parents have told them this, or some kind of general "you don't talk to anyone"). I work within the realm of child welfare, so I am aware of the services offered by our county. I won't say they are stellar, but I do know families who have benefitted. I'm not able to predict whether this family would fully accept services, but as I said, I doubt that would even be a route the county would pursue. I appreciate everyone's responses. I'm not trying to shut down responses, and I'm sorry for hovering. Just feeling at a loss.

Benadryl, I have thought about chatting with the oldest sibling. Perhaps I'll try that.
posted by retrofitted at 11:29 PM on July 26, 2017

It seems like people here are against you calling child services and "disrupting the family." It sounds like the yelling described isn't normal "yelling family" loudness and I think if you and your neighbours are all worried and distressed by the circumstances you should listen to your guts about this, not people arguing that it's "probably not abuse". We all know that yelling isn't always abuse, it sounds like this is pretty awful though.

Having grown up in this kind of environment the message that things at home weren't normal or ok and that some (though unknown) stranger cared about it did a lot for me later in life, though it was immediately problematic. I think anonymously calling is a good idea, and so is befriending the family, being nice to the kids, and visibly modelling positive interaction.
posted by windykites at 2:41 AM on July 27, 2017 [23 favorites]

"I work within the realm of child welfare, so I am aware of the services offered by our county....I'm going to call county child protection tomorrow, but from my experience, they don't do anything about verbal abuse."

Given this, befriending/interacting with the family is really about all you have to work with, right? The kids will benefit from healthy interactions with other adults. Getting the parents to change is another issue altogether, i.e., no one wants unsolicited advice re raising their kids, although it might help to empathize (or, at least seem to be empathizing), when the opportunity arises. E.g., you happen to be nearby when you hear some profanity-laced diatribe directed at the kids and respond with something like "ah, kids...they can be a handful...yours sure are cute, though". (Yes, it's trite, but you're not doing family therapy here, you're just trying to make a connection.) And, as mentioned above, reach out to the kids directly, but try not to cross Mom or Dad in the process.

Re contacting their teachers: given the kids' ages and how extreme the behavior is, I suspect that they are already aware. I wouldn't say this if the kids were in high school, where they have several teachers, who have less interaction with parents. Either way, I wouldn't do this if there were any danger that word would get back to the parents/adults because that will shut down any chance of helpful interaction with the kids/family.
posted by she's not there at 3:14 AM on July 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

No responsible teacher is going to have a dialogue with some rando who calls about one of their students. If you have a prior relationship with anyone at the school via one of your own kids, then maybe a discreet heads-up would be a start, but the teacher is surely not going to engage in any back-and-forth with you.

I think just trying to engage the kids outside their home environment is about all you can do as a concerned neighbor.

Can you invite one or all of the kids to a birthday party/play date/random ice cream outing? Maybe take one of the parents aside and say your kid has expressed a desire to befriend their Johnny or Susie, and would they consider it a favor to you if they would allow a little interaction? Are your kids involved in scouts or a sports team or a club that needs members, and they would be doing you a favor to allow their kid(s) to join?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:47 AM on July 27, 2017 [6 favorites]

I agree with Padraigin about the swearing. I personally don't see their behaviour as abuse. They're not telling their kids that they are worthless, they're just inserting the F word in sentences other parents might say 'cleanly'.

I'm not sure how it is in the U.S. but in the U.K. you can complain to the local council about noise pollution. Do you have something similar? That would at least make them aware of the volume and tone they use.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:21 AM on July 27, 2017

The swearing is a red herring--the things this family are saying would be abusive without the f-bombs.

Do you have neighborhood events or block parties? Maybe making a point of inviting them to that kind of thing would make it easier to get the kids exposed to what normal parenting looks like.
posted by chaiminda at 5:44 AM on July 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think what you've described is socially unacceptable, but not evidence of abuse. It sounds like mom has a potty mouth and a lot of frustration. Maybe there's more to it than that, but if that's it, I think your anxiety is misplaced.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:45 AM on July 27, 2017

Best answer: Sorry, this sounds like abuse to me. I would be concerned to see a dog screamed at like that, let alone a kid. And if this is happening in the front yard, what do you think happens inside the house? If I started treating my own kids like that- I would hope people would call child protective services as a wake up call. Even if the agency can't do anything to fix it, it sends a clear message that the community is watching and concerned. Silence sends a different message.

Edit: on re-read it's clear you are already planning to call an agency, sorry! For what else you can do it sounds to me like you are already doing it, and you sound like a good and decent person by the way.
posted by machinecraig at 6:04 AM on July 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

Phrases like "what the fuck is wrong with you" can be delivered either lightly or cruelly. What matters is whether the person is trying to hurt or belittle the kids with her words. The yelling and f-bombs are red-flags for abusive neglect, but not evidence of abuse in themselves.

Having too many kids per adult is also a red flag for neglect.

You might try to talk with the parents or with the kids. I predict they'll shut you out. If they do, this is also a red flag.

Try to talk with the oldest child. Ask him or her whether everyone has enough food to eat, and whether they've ever gone to bed hungry. Also ask them if everyone has enough clothes for the coming school year and whether they're proud of their appearance. Hopefully they won't shut you out, and their responses will give you more information about whether to contact the authorities or not.
posted by cmcmcm at 6:08 AM on July 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In the very similar situation – I called. Now, for reasons that I don’t quite understand, the lady on the phone told me, that unless there is a threat of physical violence (I was fairly sure there was not, and I told her that), they couldn’t do anything (this was NJ, YMMV). Yet they came and talked to the woman, and the father of the child. My neighbor was none too pleased (there were 4 apartments in the building; the other 2 people obviously didn’t care). But she stopped verbally abusing the kid.

If you “work in the realm of child welfare” I assume you’re a mandatory reporter anyway. Hopefully calling will give the person a wake-up call, that people are watching, and listening, and drawing conclusions, even if the family is not willing to accept services. If it were me, I’d also resort to standing in / walking out to my front yard when this is happening and watching in (mock?) shock when the kids are being verbally abused. Asking “is everything ok?” might also be a good opening line to a neighborly conversation.
posted by Dotty at 6:46 AM on July 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

Do you know where the kids go to school? If so can you talk to their teachers about what they've observed? Are the kids not allowed to play with all the neighborhood kids or just not yours?
posted by brujita at 6:53 AM on July 27, 2017

Having too many kids per adult is also a red flag for neglect.


Ask him or her whether everyone has enough food to eat, and whether they've ever gone to bed hungry. Also ask them if everyone has enough clothes for the coming school year and whether they're proud of their appearance.

Not so much. Look, as a neighbors we do say hi to people in the street but otherwise pretty much keep to ourselves. While I agree these are important questions, if I found out that some neighbor that I have basically zero interaction with was asking my kid these kinds of questions I would lose my shit. The person asking these questions should be someone who is legitimately already in the kids' lives, like the teacher or the principal. So to follow up on the suggestion from a different comment above, maybe don't call the school with the intention of asking the teacher questions and getting answers, but with the intention of presenting these concerns to the teacher or principal and asking them to ask these questions.

Now, if you want to find a legitimate way to enter these kids' lives, maybe approach the parents and ask if the oldest child would be interested in coming to your house to act as a mother's helper or to do some light chores for pay, like weeding. If a neighbor approached me this way about my kids I would be a lot more receptive, and maybe once the kid is at your home you could have a light, not-interrogating conversation about life in their home, while emphasizing that you want to be good neighbors and that your home is a safe zone. It would also be a kindness in terms of getting one or two kids out of the house for a few hours, where it seems that the adults are clearly overwhelmed.
posted by vignettist at 7:59 AM on July 27, 2017 [9 favorites]

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