Is it child abuse? When in doubt, meddle.

    Whether we admit it or not, many of us are conditioned to fear meddling and to think that intruding on someone else’s household somehow crosses the line of decency. Look straight ahead, do your own thing and whatever you do, don’t get involved. When is interfering in a parent-child interaction okay?

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    Four weeks ago, I found myself in line at a convenience store behind a young mother with two children — an infant who tightly clutched a stick of beef jerky and a bright-eyed toddler who smiled at me mischievously. I watched with growing impatience as the mother slowly put her items on the counter. But that impatience soon turned to horror as I realized that she was under the influence of alcohol, illegal drugs or some sort of medication.

    Her every movement was sluggish. She spoke nonsensical words in a slurred voice and almost walked out of the store without paying for her purchases — twice.

    When the cashier finally lost patience and firmly asked her to leave, the woman managed to tear her children away from their snacks, almost stumbling over them as she walked out. I followed her as she walked to a red minivan where she unsuccessfully tried to place the little one, who was now howling loudly, in a car seat.

    “Can I help you with the baby?” I asked cautiously. “Do you need a hand?”

    The older child stared tearfully at me and tried to prop up the baby, who was perched precariously on the mother’s lap.

    “No, no, no,” said the mother, vigorously shaking her head before her speech trailed off into incoherence.

    I walked to the corner and surreptitiously observed the trio. Taking a deep breath, I called the police.

    Does interference help or hurt?

    “Hello, I’m calling to a report a woman with two children in a red minivan with the following license-plate number.” I gave the number.

    “Something’s wrong. I think she’s on drugs or something. She tried to put her baby in the car seat and almost dropped her. I don’t think it’s safe for her to drive — especially with children.”

    Less than five minutes later, an officer approached.

    Twenty minutes later, I circled back to the corner and found five officers at the scene. One was holding the infant, who was sobbing. Another had the older girl, also crying. I edged my way to an officer and explained that I had called the police. “Is everything alright?” I asked, hoping to hear a simple explanation for the bizarre behavior.

    “I can’t say much, ma’am,” he said quietly. “But I will say that we’re asking her some questions right now and she’s not giving us the kind of answers we like to hear.”

    I walked home heavy-hearted, hands still shaking from the encounter. When I told my sister the story that night, she worried out loud, “What if your calling the police made the situation worse?” It’s a common fear. When is interfering in a parent-child interaction okay?

    A scene all too common

    The incident I saw was not unfamiliar. I’d seen child abuse firsthand in my own neighborhood and still chastise myself for not reporting it. But when you live in a major metropolitan city, you’re bound to run into the ugly specter of child abuse.

    The latest statistics from Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare found that in 2011, for every 500 children in Philadelphia, one was abused. According to Pennsylvania statute, child abuse is any action or inaction that causes non-accidental, serious physical or mental injury or imminent risk of injury.

    Philadelphia Magazine’s Victor Fiorillo addressed the conundrum strictly through a racial lens and came to the unscientific conclusion that somehow race played a factor into how people address public child abuse. “Is this some black thing that I just don’t understand? What was it that someone once said about it taking a village?” he wrote after his heavy-handed attempts to intervene in a situation misfired.

    A problem passed down

    But Fiorillo’s misguided attempt to use race as a means to talk sensibly about child abuse offer no real solution to the problem — it contributes nothing to the dialogue Philadelphians need to have about child abuse. What we face is not a racial problem — nor is it an apathy problem. It’s a politeness problem.

    Whether we admit it or not, many of us are conditioned to fear meddling and to think that intruding on someone else’s household somehow crosses the line of decency. Mind your own business, we’re taught. It’s certainly something my parents taught me. Look straight ahead, do your own thing and whatever you do, don’t get involved.

    It needs to change.

    As April marks National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Philadelphia sees yet another case of a parent beating a young child to death, it’s important that we all continue to listen to our gut. If you see something, say something. Anyone can anonymously report child abuse without fear of repercussions. Because if there’s one more thing my parents taught me, it’s this — better safe than sorry.

    Kishwer Vikaas currently studies at Temple Law School. She is a co-founder of The Aerogram.

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