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What If You Suspect Or Witnessed Child Abuse?

What to do when child abuse is suspected or witnessed


 I recently received an email from a distraught set of grandparents who suspected that their granddaughter was being abused by their son-in-law. When they expressed their concern to their daughter (the granddaughter’s mother), she became furious with them and said if they ever brought this up again, they would never see their granddaughter again.

Their situation prompted me to write this column — that is, I want to provide information and options to consider when child abuse is either witnessed or suspected, information that may be helpful, not only to family members, but to anyone.

To ensure the accuracy of the information I am about to share, I contacted four frontline professionals: a family physician; a former school principal; and two licensed mental health professionals.

A Compilation of Their Comments and Advice

  • Each of these four professionals is considered a “mandated reporter” – defined as an individual who holds a professional position that requires him or her to report, not investigate, to the appropriate state agency cases of child abuse that he or she has reasonable cause to suspect.
Help me! written on the child’s hand

The list of mandated reporters includes: registered psychologists; social workers; teachers; counsellors; principals; child-care workers; family day carers and home-based careers; refuge workers; and in some states, clergy.

  • Anyone can report witnessed or suspected child abuse. It is important to note that reports made to Child Protection agencies are confidential and the reporter’s identity is generally protected by law.

No one other than social services will ever know you are the one who made the report. The dispatcher and the caseworker are the only ones who will likely know your name and will not release it to the abuser, the victim, or anyone else.

Here is some general information on how to report child abuse and neglect.

Here is a link to state and territory-specific instructions on how to submit a child complaint, as well as a list of statewide toll-free numbers, regional numbers, and online reporting options.

My four frontline professionals point out that they make their own phones available to people who are anxious about using their personal phones when placing a call to make a report.

  • Any party reporting suspected, or actual child abuse, may feel guilty for doing so, especially if he/she is a family member. It may feel like a form of betrayal. Therefore, the frontline professionals suggest addressing potential guilt directly with the reporting party by saying something along these lines, “How are you feeling about contacting Child Protective Services?”

In some cases, the question will be answered with nothing but positivity – “I am doing the right thing, and I have no regrets.” However, in those cases where ambiguity is expressed – “I hope I’m doing the right thing” – or, definite guilt is expressed – “I am doing a terrible thing” – then an offer to talk through the various feelings with a licensed mental health professional should be offered.

“If I witnessed something like this now, I would take down his license plate and immediately call Child Protective Services and report what transpired.”

Such a professional will be able to help the reporting party to understand that ambivalence and/or guilt are natural and that these feelings can coexist with doing the right thing.

  • Reporting parties also need to understand that once they have reported their concerns to the proper agencies, they will not be informed about what actions, if any, have been taken. This “being left in the dark” as to whether one’s actions have made a difference can be disquieting; reporting parties need to be aware of this reality.

On a Personal Note

On a personal note, I wish I had this information many decades ago when I saw a parent verbally abusing his children in a parking lot. I felt so helpless and upset as he drove off still yelling and screaming at those kids, threatening to “beat them silly,” as they cried and cowered in the back seat.

If I witnessed something like this now, I would take down his license plate and immediately call Child Protective Services and report what transpired.

Although I would not know the outcome of my call, I would have the peace of mind of knowing that I tried to help those children.

I am indebted to the four frontline professionals who shared their expertise for this column. They have provided important information to inform readers about available resources and actions they might take in cases where they suspect, or have witnessed, child abuse.

To read more from Karen L. Rancourt, click here 



Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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