You may remember an article I wrote over the summer about child abuse, in which I wondered, When parents beat their kids in public … what can you do? In that piece, I detailed an experience I had at the PATCO station at 8th and Market, where I saw a mother berating and smacking around a young boy. While more than two dozen adults looked on silently or altogether ignored the problem, I intervened on the child’s behalf. Since then, the subject has been on my mind quite a bit, and yesterday, another Momzilla reared her ugly head.
I was riding the Route 10 SEPTA trolley home through West Philadelphia. The mom, who appeared to be in her early 20s, was sharing a two-seater with a stroller and two children. The boy was no more than four. The bundled-up girl still had baby fingers. Probably two years old, if that.
As they sat there, jammed in, the baby girl kept sliding down in the seat. So her mother screamed at her, “Knock it the fuck off!” This went on for about 15 minutes, with the mom alternating between verbally assaulting her child and sending text messages. Naturally, this didn’t solve the problem.
Eventually, mom’s voice took on a monstrous, guttural tone more reminiscent of a death metal vocalist than a young mother, and she started hitting the girl with what I would call “pops.” These became smacks. Finally, the son said something that I didn’t quite hear, and the enraged mother hit him—either in the side or arm—with a series of rapid-fire punches. I couldn’t tell how hard she was hitting him, but she was clearly out of control.
As the rest of the passengers sat there with their mouths shut, some looking at the abusive mother, some purposefully not, I finally spoke up. “If you hit that child one more time,” I told her loudly, “I will call the police and follow you home and make sure they arrest you.” Even as I said it, thoughts of my own safety, my own children, and that 2010 bus shooting that apparently came out of a similar scenario, raced through my head.
Mom sprang up out of her seat and spit in my face. Then she pushed one child and pulled the other, along with the folded-up stroller, toward the door. Apparently it just happened to be her stop. I’m not exactly sure of the words that were spewing forth from her contemptible mouth as she exited, except that they didn’t make much sense and that she ended with, “That’s the problem with all you fucking white people.”
Oh. Did I forget to mention that? She was black. Actually, every single person on the trolley (at least 20 passengers at this point) was black. Well, except me. And, in the incident at 8th and Market last year, it was pretty much the same situation. Is this some black thing that I just don’t understand? What was it that someone once said about it taking a village?
“That’s why no one else would even look at her,” the middle-aged man in front of me on the trolley said, as soon as the mother was safely on the street. “Because she was obviously fucked up.” Oh. Okay. So while a clearly “fucked up” mother sits there abusing two helpless children, the best thing to do is not get involved? I think I’m beginning to see the problem here.
This morning, I decided to contact the police. Not to file a report against the mother, since I don’t know her name or address, and I didn’t see any cameras on the trolley, but to ask them what they would advise the public to do in situations like this. The officer who picked up the phone in the public affairs office listened to my story and my questions. Then she paused. “Hmm. That’s a touchy situation,” she said before putting me on hold. “It’s really touchy.”
After a few minutes, Lieutenant Ray Evers took my call.
“It’s a delicate situation,” he began. “It’s a difficult subject to broach.”
“I don’t have any kids,” Evers said. “But I do know that everyone looks at family discipline in a different way. Some people are raised differently.”
Evers went on to explain that the legal perspective is murky. “There are lots of questions. Was a weapon or implement used? You can’t do that. Open hand or closed hand? Are there welts or things of that nature? There are questions like this to consider. And there’s a very fine line.”
In the end, Evers says that as a member of the public, it’s probably best to use the same test that the Supreme Court famously used for obscenity. “You may not know exactly how to define it,” he says. “But you know it when you see it. If it affects you enough, then say something. Just know that there could be a backlash.”
Once I got home last night and scrubbed my face with soap and water, I posted a note on Facebook about the incident. My Facebook friends told me to be careful. One suggested that I start wearing a bulletproof vest if I am going to continue the crusade. And another, who happens to be a community activist in my neighborhood, wrote, “So many people want to speak up and never do.”
I believe that’s true. I believe that many–even most–people do want to say something. So why don’t they?
The only sane argument is personal safety. We all saw the video of that 2010 bus shooting, and it was scary to be sure. But think about the safety of that young child. Think of that child’s future. And think about what mom is doing behind closed doors.
If you’re not going to stick up for the kid, who will?
EDITOR’S UPDATE: See what Victor Fiorillo learned after he wrote this post in “Be Kind to Child Abusers” here.