Yes, You Should Intervene If You Think a Child Is Being Abused

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Photo: Courtesy of Facebook/Erika Burch

It’s an all-too-common cycle: A woman posts about something she saw on Facebook, the post gets picked up by online news outlets, goes viral, and ends up on Good Morning America. Though many people respond in support of the woman’s actions and her post, there are plenty of “mind your own business” comments too. And now, nearly two weeks into the discussion, we finally begin to ask ourselves the inevitable, ethical questions surrounding the issue.

Except this time, it’s a little different, because of the nature of the incident.

On September 19, in Cleveland, Texas, a 25-year-old woman named Erica Burch witnessed a man with a young child around 5 to 7 years old. The man had taken the child’s hair and wrapped it around the shopping cart handle — ostensibly to keep her beside him — and was dragging her alongside the cart with him. Burch wrote on Facebook that the child was crying and saying, “Please stop, I promise I won’t do it again.”

Burch said she intervened, speaking with the man several times before calling 911 and alerting a police officer who happened to be in the store. The police department later posted on its own Facebook page that the incident was being investigated.

The post, which has been shared more than 240,000 times on Facebook, had hundreds of commenters supporting Burch’s actions. But the detractors were there too, and the typical reaction could be summed up in a comment like this:

“did anyone bother to ask what the girls was doing. Ive seen may uncontrolled children in stores yelling and running around causing a scene, with their Parents ignoring them . So get the whole story before you stick your nose into Parents discipline. Maybe if the public let parents do their jobs and not put their noses into someone else business then our world would be a better place to live. Abuse is the “intent to cause harm” …discipline is not.”

The New York Times summed up the discussion in a headline: “Should You Intervene When a Parent Harshly Disciplines a Child in Public?”

I would argue that the answer is always yes. Adults on this planet have an ethical, moral obligation to children, even at the risk of our own bodies. On a theoretical level, stepping in or calling the police is absolutely something we should do if we see a child being harmed.

Obviously, it’s more complicated than that: We can’t agree yet on what is and isn’t abuse. Spanking has been found to be detrimental to children’s mental and emotional health, for example, but plenty of people still do it. And of course, many of us do not trust the police, and no one wants to overreact and send a child off to the foster system over a bad parenting moment.

But the incident described wasn’t a fringe case. If my husband did this to me — grabbed my hair and wrapped it around a shopping cart to tether me to him — it would be obviously viewed as abusive. Adults cannot treat each other this way. So why is a child different?

Historically, children have been viewed as property. But that view is outmoded, clearly. Children aren’t possessions, and in obvious cases of abuse — as this one was by all accounts — adult humans should never question whether or not to act on their behalf. Not doing so can have disastrous consequences, and in fact, children sometimes die, even when social workers are alerted. The case of a 6-year old boy who died at the hands of his parents this Monday in New York City after authorities were repeatedly alerted makes that clear.

A more pressing question in this scenario is whether or not to post about it on Facebook, especially as the post contains photographs of the child. This is a question we are all grappling with day by day, as the rules around privacy and social media shift. Often people with children and those who write about them err on the side of caution. At the very least, a child’s face can be blurred.

There aren’t any easy answers, but one thing is for sure: Erica Burch did the right thing in not ignoring the incident.