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Parenting Advice Column
Subject: "Should I report suspected child abuse?"

Q. A couple I know have two small children. I have reason to believe that the father hurts the boy. His mother said he would hurt him "to toughen him up" since he was about six months old. Once when I went out with her briefly, the boy had a cut on his face when we returned. She claimed he did it on the crib, but she wasn't there at the time. Yesterday she came down to ask me to come and see his birthday presents. When we got up there the boy was in his crib crying and had a huge red mark on the right side of his face.

It really bothers me that the mother knows about it and does nothing. The father is always alone with the child when he gets hurt, as far as I know.

Can you suggest anything? I have no proof of this other than what the mother has told me and the cut and marks I have seen on him.

- Name withheld


A. Thank you so much for writing and for your compassion for this child. I urge you to call Childhelp USA or the reporting number for your state. They have a list of hotlines and state-by-state numbers.

What you are describing is the sort of treatment that is highly likely to lead to violent behavior as the child grows up (I would strongly suspect that the father had a similar childhood). And there may well be more severe forms of abuse than you suspect, that have been hidden from you, and possibly also from the mother. She may also be a victim of physical or emotional abuse. In any case, she is very likely terrified of reporting this herself. Please, please do so.

Child abuse ripples out to many, many people over many years, so you could be helping far more people than just this one child. If you are concerned about the steps a child protection agency might take, ask the person who takes your call how the agencies in your state would handle this kind of situation. Interestingly, it may actually be illegal for you not to report this situation. As stated on this page: "All 50 states have passed some form of a mandatory child abuse and neglect reporting", not just for professionals but in many states for any individual who suspects such abuse.

I understand that you may be hesitant to report this situation, but from all you've told me, I doubt that you are mistaken in your conclusions - and child protection agencies would much rather have a report that errs by being wrong than not hearing about an abusive situation until it is too late.

- Jan

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