28 Aug I Witnessed Abuse and Didn’t Help. What Would You Have Done?
By Ailee Olsen
In October of 2013, I was in a poor neighborhood of Malang (a small town in Indonesia) visiting friends at their home. As I waited outside their door, I looked to my right and saw a 7-year-old little girl named Isti*, whom I had become friends with in the weeks before. She was sitting on the ground with her head in her hands. Isti lived with her grandparents, and as I watched, her grandmother came out and started yelling at her. I didn’t speak Indonesian very well, so I didn’t understand the words that were said, but I watched as Isti’s body racked with sobs.
What happened next is something that I have tried to forget for the past three and a half years. I went into my friend’s house for a few minutes, and when I came back out, Isti was gone. All of a sudden there was a smacking noise, and I heard Isti let out a blood-curdling scream. Again and again I could hear her being struck and screaming in pain.
I couldn’t just listen to her being beaten! I turned and tried to go back so I could stop the abuse, but my friend held me back. I resisted as she physically restrained me, yelling at her that we had to do something, that we couldn’t just let Isti get hurt. She held me until I broke down, telling me that if we intervened, we might make the situation worse. She told me that the laws in Indonesia are different than the laws in America and that I couldn’t do anything.
So we left. We took the small path down the hill, got on our bikes, and rode away—Isti’s screams still echoing in my mind. Those screams have haunted me ever since.
Isti’s story is not unique, and this type of abuse does not happen just in Indonesia. It happens in America too; in fact, 762,940 cases of child abuse were reported in the US in 2009—that’s a lot of children that are suffering needlessly. But the scary part is that not all cases of child abuse are even reported. Between 34 and 76% of cases suspected by mandated reporters are not reported. Four children die from maltreatment every day—and that’s only half of the deaths that actually occur from abuse.
I didn’t report Isti’s abuse and I’ve felt guilty ever since. We can’t stand by and let children be abused anymore. How many times have you done the same thing that I did and turned a blind eye to potential abuse? In order to stop this, we need to make sure that we recognize abuse when it happens and do something about it.
It’s essential to first understand what abuse is and what it is not. Child abuse encompasses physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, as well as physical or emotional neglect. It is any form of non-accidental harm to children. Signs include bruises in odd shapes or injuries that occur repeatedly, a child’s sudden change of behavior such as thumb sucking, fear of the dark, bullying, or other cruelty. Other signs of abuse can be found here.
Filing a child abuse report can be scary. Because this is recognized as a difficult thing for reporters, each state has granted those who report child abuse immunity from legal repercussions that may occur as a result of the report as long as they report in good faith (meaning they’re not trying to slander the person they’re reporting).
Failure to report may even be breaking the law. Many states require certain professionals to report suspected child abuse. These ‘mandatory reporters’ include teachers, doctors, mental health professionals, etc. Some states, such as New Jersey and Utah, require everyone—not just professionals—to report suspected abuse.
We have to report abuse for the good of the children. Effects of child abuse can follow victims for their entire lives. Recently at my university I became friends with a girl named Annie.* As I got to know Annie, I learned a little bit about her story.
Annie came from an abusive background, including emotional neglect and physical and sexual abuse. Annie has grown into an incredible woman and overcome many of her challenges, but she still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety linked to her abuse. I have witnessed many of Annie’s panic attacks and flashbacks; I’ve been with her at 2 a.m. trying to help her understand that she is safe. When Annie comes out of a flashback, she often recoils from anyone around her and visibly relaxes when she recognizes that her abusers are not in the room.
Annie reported her own abuse to Child Protective Services, but was never able to prove anything. This left her with her abusers and subject to increased abuse. Annie could have been saved a lot of pain if someone had only cared enough to report the abuse that happened to her—to be a witness to what was going on. We need to make sure that children don’t have to suffer the way that Annie still does.
If you see child abuse, make sure that you are aware of what to do. Write down what you have seen and what information you need to tell the National Child Abuse Hotline (the child’s name, address, and reasons for your suspicions, as well as your name and address). Understand that you and the people you talk to are only trying to help the child.
By being informed and reporting child abuse when it happens, you can help children like Isti* and Annie*. If you suspect child abuse, please call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. This article explains in detail the requirements for reporting abuse for each state. If you need additional information to recognize child abuse, please read this article.
*Names have been changed for the protection of the individuals.
Ailee Olsen is a senior at Brigham Young University-Idaho studying child development. She hopes to pursue degrees in communicative disorders and speech and language pathology. Ailee is passionate about improving the lives of young children and is never happier than when she is with her family.
- United States Census Bureau. (2012). Child abuse and neglect cases reported, investigated, and number of child victims by state: 2009. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library
- Hogelin, J. M. (2013). To prevent and to protect: the reporting of child abuse by educators. Brigham Young University Education & Law Journal, (2), 225-252. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.byui.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=89986794&site=ehost-live
- ChildHelp. (n.d.). Child abuse statistics and facts. Retrieved from https://www.childhelp.org/child-abuse-statistics/
- Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/whatiscan.pdf
- Tennyson Center for Children. (n.d.). Recognizing Child Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.childabuse.org/page.aspx?pid=229