White Guy Confronts Black Mom Beating Kids on SEPTA Trolley

Why didn’t one other passenger stand up with me?

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.”

Sure is.

“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.

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  • Mark Cofta

    Every occasion like this becomes a big decision about the risks of interfering. My story is not at all violent, but shows that inappropriate public discipline can take place in many settings among many sorts of people.I felt the same trepidation your fellow bystanders felt: during intermission at the Arden’s “Charlotte’s Web,” where a father seated behind me yelled repeatedly at his little son (maybe 4 years old) to not stand up. The kid was a few rows in front of me — I’m not sure why they weren’t together — but the father felt all too comfortable yelling commands and threats at the tyke. In hindsight, I wish I had said something, because he was also yelling directly into my ear, but more important is the simple concept that no obnoxious and abusive parent should feel empowered to berate his kid in public. The message needs to be sent that normal rules of civil behavior are not suspended for those who need to spew their fury at their kids. However, like your bystanders, I felt this dad was so redfaced-crazy that I feared his reaction should I or anyone put him in his place.

  • http://www.facebook.com/johnpaultitlow John

    Man, you’re really begging for a Philly.com-style racist comment flame war with that headline.

    I realize the woman made a racially insensitive comment, but I actually don’t think this issue has very much to do with race in reality. This is more of a class/culture thing, perhaps one that’s somewhat unique to (or at least worse in) urban areas. A white, low-income mother living in Kensington is just as likely to physically assault one of her children in public.

    As for the intervention, it’s unfortunate, but I think quite a few of us have witnessed something like this in public. Regardless of our skin color, I don’t think the average person is inclined to get involved, even if we ought to. I know I’ve felt the urge.

    Picking a fight with an already belligerent stranger is just not something most people are apt to do. It has nothing to do with being black or white. In other words, no, this is not “some black thing” that you don’t understand.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502764665 Rachel

    Victor, I just read Vicky Glembocki’s post and link to this article, and commend you for doing the right thing. We’ve all been in this situation or a similar one at some point (regardless of our race or the color of the skin of the parent who is being abusive). I wonder many things about this mother: how was she raised, what is her life situation, where is her support system? And I wonder how your fellow transit riders could help but protect innocent children, who are probably doomed to end up as the same type of abusive parents, if they live that long. On Vicky’s FB page, I shared my own story of actually interceding in an incident (a far less explosive one) recently, and actually being able to effect change — calm down the mom, show the kid some kindness, and ultimately help the mom connect to some much needed services for her severely neurologically disabled son. More power to you for doing the right thing. I hope others who read this follow in your footsteps when it’s their turn to make such a choice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nccpr Richard

    In the course of following child welfare over 35 years, first as a reporter now as an advocate, I’ve read a fair amount of advice from professionals on what to do in situations like this. So far no one has suggested lording ones white middle class smug superiority over someone who probably has a vastly tougher life than you do, and generally abusing the abuser (and yes, if your description is accurate, this mother was abusing her children).

    The reason your approach generally isn’t favored is obvious from the results both times you’ve tried it. You made yourself feel better and got two self-righteous columns out of it, but the children are no better off. What do you think happened as soon as this mother was out of your sight? Do you think she calmed down, thought it over and decided: “Gee, that white guy was right. If only I’d gotten his name so I could have thanked him”?

    If you really wanted to help the children, you could have tried kindness. You could have expressed some sympathy for a mother trying to cope with her small children (whether you meant it or not) and offered to hold the little girl, who kept sliding off her mother’s lap, until she got to her stop, or you got to yours.

    What would you have to lose? At worst, mom still have spat in your face and called you names. At which point you could have done what you really wanted and threatened her. At best, she would have calmed down and her children would have been better off.

    And unless you can cite studies showing that a trolley full of white people of the same income level would have responded differently, then your column was racist as well.

    As for calling the cops, or, say DHS, sometimes that really is the right move. But think long and hard first about the fate of children in the Philadelphia foster care system before deciding which option is likely to do more harm, and what to try first.

    Richard Wexler
    Executive Director
    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

  • lorna1

    I really appreciate the comments made by Richard above. And I don’t really see this as a race issue (I am a Black woman) though racial differences could complicate the reactions (as it did in the story you relate above). I have found that the best way to deal with / in these situations is to try to sympathize with the mother enough so that you cam maybe get her to think differently. I usually will say something about how cute her children are. This sometimes shocks her into realizing how she is acting long enough for her to stop.

    I also do like Richard’s practical suggestions to help her with the kids. I think these types of approaches (sympathize with the mom, offer help with the kids, help her realize – in a non-threatenting way – how cute and helpless the kids are) are much more likely to end positively. I would like to see more people use these types of approaches and not just stand by and allow abuse to occur without intervening at all!

  • elisagf1

    I want to thank Richard Wexler for his post. I think he is right on. It is not very productive to use a situation of public child abuse to feel smug about one’s own moral standing in society, especially when there are such vast differences in class and experience (not to mention gender and color) between the author and the subject of his reprobation. The idea of offering her another seat is great. Why NOT be helpful? Sometimes people just need a little bit of help. There’s nothing like feeling completely abandoned and overburdened to make a person act terribly, and I can say that lots of mothers–middle class, working class, poor, white, black, whatever–do feel exactly this way because our society does not give them help, honor or respect. So, show a sister some kindness. It really might help the children, not to mention the mom herself. We all need an extended hand sometimes. Even Mr. Fiorillo.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1056169653 Michael

    The answer is simple>>>See suspicious behavior, REPORT IT TO THE POLICE! Abuse happens in every Race, it just takes A Better Person do do something about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashley.andrien Ashley

    Such a great article. Kudos to you for speaking up for a good cause. I was once at the Willow Grove Mall’s food court and a woman was carrying her little girl by her pony tail and shaking her while she walked through the food court. All at once, everyone screamed at her to stop. It was an amazing thing to witness. She was obviously ashamed but reacted in the same way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003002717706 Dunemi

    I think your reaction to Victor’s reaction is out of line. Why is he smug? because he’s white and outraged by child abuse being openly ignored? Societal indifference to the abuse of defenseless people, be they children or elderly or disabled, is appalling and I applaud anyone with the guts to say something.

    Maybe the reaction you espouse is fine for you and other professionals, but righteous anger is justified here. I cried when I read this article – and I felt angry at the mother, angry at the people who said nothing, and terrified by what this says about our society.

    And Robert, using your method, if I see terrible racist behavior on the bus, should I try to sympathize with the bigot… make him feel better? Or should I call him out on it? Exactly why is child abuse less serious than racism?

  • http://www.facebook.com/nccpr Richard

    If someone could demonstrate a way in which sympathizing with a bigot would make that person *less* of a bigot, then I would say yes, sympathize with the bigot. That is not the same thing as tolerating the bigotry.

    Similarly, offering to help the mother in this case would not have been the same as condoning what she did. On the contrary, it would have been more likely to stop her from doing it.
    Look at what Rachel was able to accomplish by taking an approach closer to the one I suggested (an idea which does not originate with me, but with many professionals in the field of child welfare).

    I don’t think the issue is whether righteous anger is justified. The issue is: What is most likely to accomplish the goal we all share: reducing child abuse? And there is no justification for lines like “ Is this some black thing that I just don’t understand?” just because in the two situations Mr. Fiorillo happened to witness, the people who did not respond as he wanted them to were Black.

    Richard Wexler
    Executive Director
    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

  • http://www.facebook.com/nccpr Richard

    One other thought: In the Penn State scandal, the accused, Jerry Sandusky, was a foster parent, and his charity began as a group home. As far as I know, everyone accused of failing to intervene and/or covering up his alleged crimes is white, and many are quite well off.

    No one is making broad-brush statements about well-off white people, or foster parents, or group homes based on this – nor should they.

    Richard Wexler
    Executive Director
    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

  • http://www.facebook.com/floydjm Floydwhatsamattaforya

    As a Septa driver I feel your pain, but you need to leave it alone. It’s not a black thing at all, it’s totally an age and cultural thing. I see this whether I’m driving with white mothers, black ones, black or white fathers. It’s a serious lack of parenting. She’s a twenty something with three kids. Hmmm. Today they have absolutely no concept of what parenting is. And it’s not only that they’re abusive to their kids, they’re abusive to the other passengers as well. It’s a war zone on those buses and trolleys. And when you decide you want to say something be prepared to get what you got. Sorry to say it, but the vast majority of people riding public transportation are uneducated animals. Why do I say that? Nineteen years of seeing and hearing things that surprise me every day. It’s basically a zoo. Those other people that didn’t say anything, you may have said why they didn’t get involved, well the spit in your face tells a small part of the story. Look what happened on the rte 47 when the girl called her cronies and they shot up the bus. Do yourself a favor. If you get on keep your head down and get off at your stop.

  • http://www.facebook.com/megemurray Meg

    I commend you! I very much agree with your friend that many people want to intervene, but don’t, for some reason. What I had often been told is to not intervene, because that would only make the abuser “more angry” with the likelihood that when, no longer in public, the abuser would take this anger out on the abused, again, and with even more volatility. Perhaps taking a stand, if done by enough persons over a sustained period of time, would be able to make a difference to the abuser, the abused, or, at the very least, to inspire others who witness this to do the same.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ruth.k.crispin Ruth

    My mother beat me frequently as I was growing up. I realize this is poor mothering–I was careful not to hit as a mother myself–but in fact I grew up to be a productive, happy, successful human being, an excellent mother, a good friend, etc. What matters isn’t the smacking but the love. If the mother truly loves her kids, if her “abuse” doesn’t go beyond hitting and smacking, her children will probably not grow up damaged. I understand the revulsion one feels at such a scene, but it is, in fact, not necessarily a matter for the police.

    • Bringitbully

      In this day and age it isn’t acceptable and the brave will always call the police. There is no sugar coating it.

  • pianki-

    Child rearing is a cultural practice. Blacks and black African-Americans in years past did a much better job of disciplining their children. Integration has done much harm in disrupting age old African American cultural practices. The mother in the story probably was never taught how to be a mother. Matter of fact she probably was a deseg student. I am much against white Americans attempting to teach Blacks how to be parents as I would be against Blacks attempting to teach the same to Afghanistan Families. Corporal punishment was removed from public schools because blacks and whites did not want the other spanking their children and I agree. Victor could be helpful in giving support to black groups that work to implement education paradigms such as African-Centered Curriculums in Public Schools and similar cultural programs designed to instill values and parental responsibility. Whites has come out against programs and attempts by Blacks to install such plans and when we have incidents like this story, whites begin use all sorts of excuses to apply to a situation they directly or indirectly contribute to. There are still today very large sections within black America that desire to maintain their African Heritage. In naming their children and even applying ethnic marks (misnomer tribal marks) on their children. One could say that busing black children into all white school districts, exposing them to the violence in bible stories and circumcision are abusive to black children too.
    The United States government which has and is controlled by white mostly males use methods known as “smart power”. A full range of tools at their disposal to include diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural designed to persuade a people’s behavior into a desired result suitable to white America interest. Maybe what was seen being carried out through this mother is the results of that plan also? I appreciate your humanly concerns Victor but what appears on the surface is not the heart of the problem.

  • shethj79

    The first issue here is that we need to recognize that ANY corporal punishment isn’t abuse. Im not sure if the writer understands that but he seems to be suggesting he is obligated to intervene if he sees any parent using their hand to punish a child. That’s a bit ridiculous. I don’t know how long he has been catching SEPTA in that area but Im sure the other passengers could’ve predicted that an ignorant, angry person wasnt going to respond well to being told she would be followed home and locked up. They probably didn’t say anything because they knew they couldn’t save those kids by making one comment and because they knew the mother was not going to take the criticism well. If she had spit in the face of one of the black passengers on the bus there is a good chance she would’ve gotten herself seriously injured. Knowing that a woman like that was going to lash out in anger and ignorance, many passengers likely sat and waited for her to exit the vehicle.

    I’m not saying intervention should always be avoided, but there are times when you can pick up a vibe that suggests there is no point. I wouldnt consider myself BETTER than others who didn’t speak up, perhaps you were simply more self righteous and naive. It is a brave notion to think you can ride the trolley and save black souls on some sort of crusade for justice, but the reality is the lack of opportunities and despair in these areas has a long history and it isn’t going to change simply because one white guy decides to stand up and threaten to call the cops on poor mothers. That woman and what she did and said to you is a reflection of the economic and social conditions in poor urban areas. When you have people that are racially and economically cut off and they don’t have good schools, decent jobs or much else available to help them move up a class this is what you get. If you think you’re depressed or angry based on your little experience imagine how those who have been confronting these issues for decades feel.

    • Bringitbully

      Being from a poor neighborhood is a sorry excuse for beating your kids. It’s unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. If this the best excuse you have for this asinine behavior don’t participate in these discussions. You sound like a total fool! Everyone is afforded the same opportunities in this country what they choose to do with them is their choice. Beating kids is part of a cycle f abuse that must stop. And yes people like me will ALWAYS intervene. Don’t abuse your kid in front of me and expect it not to be addressed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zubkin Alea

    Victor, I commend you for your efforts. I think you did a brace thing. The issue here is NOT race. At all. To all of you who are commenting about the racist aspects of this story, grow a heart. The issue here is child abuse. And if you can do anything to save a child, or spare them for a few minutes and show them an act of kindness, I say do it. Also, about the mother being “fucked up;” how is it that a mother was arrested for abandoning her baby in a shopping cart becuase she was fucked up, but a mother beating her kids is allowed to slide?

  • http://www.facebook.com/zubkin Alea

    Victor, I commend you for your efforts. I think you did a brave thing. The issue here is NOT race. At all. To all of you who are commenting about the racist aspects of this story, grow a heart. The issue here is child abuse. And if you can do anything to save a child, or spare them for a few minutes and show them an act of kindness, I say do it. Also, about the mother being “fucked up;” how is it that a mother was arrested for abandoning her baby in a shopping cart because she was fucked up, but a mother beating her kids is allowed to slide?

  • CS

    Today I had a profoundly disturbing experience — walking up the sidewalk from the zoo — very crowded — the woman in front of me was screaming abusively at the little boy with her — maybe 7 years old or so — and then smacked him upside the head multiple times.

    Everybody was either looking at her or pointedly ignoring her, but nobody did anything. When she smacked him about the 4th time, I had to say something to her. She screamed “fuck you, rich bitch!” and “mind your own fucking business you whore!”. I asked her to please reconsider hitting her child, and she screamed more obscenities at me — and berated the child again (“You idiot! You’re so stupid! If you don’t start doing what I say I’m gonna kick your ass!”). All with a zillion people around. I said “Ma’am, I’ll call 911 if you don’t stop abusing him”. A woman tapped my shoulder and said quietly “I’ve been watching her hit him for five blocks. Call 911. I’ll be another witness.”

    I called 911. I walked far back from them (she kept turning around and screaming obscenities at me, but didn’t hit the cowering child again) and reported it all to 911. Even the info on their car as they got into and drove away — the woman shouting out the window “Fuck you you fucking bitch! Get outta my face, bitch!”

    She was caucasian, blonde, petite.

    The police called me 10 minutes later to tell me they’d pulled over the van, and wanted to let me know that the woman told them she had never hit her kid.

    ??? This is Washington, DC, folks.

    I told the officer that I had never seen anything like it in public, and that I feared for that child and I had called 911 so that hopefully somehow social services would have to start looking into that family, if they weren’t already.

    He said he understood, and he’d let the other officer know this.

    That was it. I was very shaken — by her smacking the child repeatedly on the head and verbally abusing him so wretchedly, by the tons of people on the street doing nothing, and then honestly, by the police response.

    I get it – it’s touchy. But all they can do is ask an adult who’s been reported to them as hitting their child… whether they’ve hit their child. And the adult can say “no”, and case closed?

    I don’t know, but I stand with you. I’ve never reported anything like this before – but I’ve never seen anything so disturbing and clearly — the woman was not just beating her child in public. It was pretty clear by her unending rage and the child’s cowering behavior that it probably happens all the time. Awful.

  • justin

    im a child and my mom beats me like every day what should i do

    • http://www.facebook.com/darlene.garner1 Darlene Garner

      @justin call 1-800-422-4453 Childhelp. They will help you. Call 911. Tell your school principal. Nobody should be beaten, ever.

    • Enid Grajales

      honey contact the police tell someone a teacher family member counselor tell someone so you may get help

    • Bringitbully

      Call the cops sweetie, you don’t deserve it. Get the help you need.

  • lynn

    thank you for writing this article. i had a similar thing happen to me yesterday and is in the process of contacting the authorities

  • disqus_ca72AV7LJ1

    I am one of those kids that was abused both physically and sexually and people witnessed it and did NOTHING to help me, turning their heads and not wanting to get involved. They were both blacks and whites, but they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses will shun you for your child life saving blood during a surgery, they’ll tell you that you’re going to be destroyed by their God Jehovah soon for smoking a cigarette, but they have soft hearts for pedophiles. Kudos to you for standing up for a child, he or she will always remember you. Hope that the child can get to have a safe and loving home environment.

  • Blue Sakki

    The writer’s choice to use words such as beat instead of excessive discipline or corporal punishment oozes racist overtones. I suppose if the young mother had allowed the child to run amok he would have accused her of letting her child act ghetto. Typical racist crap

    • Emily

      I hate when people think everything is racist.

    • Bringitbully

      If the shoe fits wear it honey. This isn’t racist crap it’s the ugly ugly ugly truth of ignorant uneducated undeserving people being blessed with kids and treating them like sh**.

    • Kaylinn Marie

      YOU are the racist for thinking this is racist. Since fucking when is “beat” a racist word?