After sharing the story of what happened when I witnessed child abuse in Marshalls (see my previous post), both here and on other forums, I received some good suggestions. The main suggestions were for me to call CPS and the police anyway, even though it was the following day and I had very little to go on. I decided it was worth the effort.
First, I tried CPS. I told the story, but the worker informed me that they couldn't do anything without some kind of identification. I said that the store should have surveillance video, and she said, "That's the store's private property. We don't have any right to that video unless we get, like, a warrant. You'd have to go to the police. Maybe they could get it."
I asked her what I could do in the future if something like this happened, and she said, "Get the license plate number." (Just like my mom said.)
Next, I called the police's non-emergency number. The officer I spoke with was nice and listened well, and was realistic with me about the chances of this actually getting solved: slim. He told me it would probably go out as an infomation bulletin. But he encouraged me to let an officer come to my house to take a report anyway, because you never know.
So Sarina and I put off our plans that day for a little while and waited. The officer did come over and listened to what happened. He shook his head in sympathy when I described how this girl was left alone and looked appropriately dismayed when I got to the part about the hair-pulling and slapping. But when I asked what would happen next, he said he wasn't sure because it wasn't his precinct. He didn't know if the officers in the next precinct would follow up with the store and try to get the video.
The reactions I've gotten about this story have left me with the strong idea that not many other people would know what to do in a similar situation, though, so I'm going to do my best to compile all the info I've now learned right here.
1. "Don't confront." The police officers I spoke with both advised me not to confront an abusive person. I can't say that I fully agree with that advice, but I understand where it comes from. You don't want to put yourself in harm's way-- but of course, sometimes that means you're leaving a child in harm's way instead. I can't tell you which is worse. What I can say is that the following suggestion seems like a good compromise to me:
2. Engage in sympathetic conversation. This advice comes from the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse:
Start a conversation with the adult to direct attention away from the child.
"She seems to be trying your patience."
"My child sometimes gets upset like that, too."
"Children can really wear you out sometimes. Is there anything I can do to help?"
(See more of their advice here.)
3. Call the police. Not CPS, not anyone else-- if you witness child abuse and it's happening right now, call the police right away. You can call other agencies later, but the police should be the first responders. You can make a report anonymously.
4. Get any kind of ID you can. If you can talk to the parent or child, get whatever you can out of them: their names, the name of their school, where they live, etc. The best thing you can get is a license plate number, so discreetly try to follow them to the parking lot and take a picture with your cell phone and/or write down the license plate number and description of the car.
5. Report the abuse to a manager. If you're in a store, restaurant, or other business, tell a manager what's happening and let him know you've called police. Ask the manager if he can detain or stall the abuser (by pretending there's a problem with a cash register or something, if he doesn't want to tip off what's really happening), lock the doors, record the abuser's credit card or other information, or otherwise assist.
6. Ask others for backup. If you're going to confront the parent, or shield the child, or do anything dangerous, look around you for other people who are also watching the situation. As them if they'll back you up if you try to help the child.
7. After you've called the police, call your state's child abuse hotline or Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). Unfortunately, you can't simply trust that the police will "handle it." Some police officers are good; some are bad; some care and some don't. Some have no idea how to handle abuse situations. Make noise with as many agencies as you can once you've made the first police report.
And if you want to see some real-life scenarios played out, check out this amazing show:
That's a link to watch episodes of ABC's "What Would You Do?", a show I'd never seen until this week. It shows actors depicting difficult scenes of abuse, neglect, racism, and other hot-button issues in places like restaurants and streets, then shows how the unsuspecting public reacts. In some cases, bystanders step in to help. In others, they ignore or even make the situation worse. But I can tell you that it brought me to tears every single time a bystander worked up the amazing courage to step in and help a stranger, despite that it meant putting themselves at risk.
If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments. I'll update this if I get any other solid information. Thank you for reading!