ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The kids have been abused. Newspaper stories have told us all about it in stomach-turning detail. Toys have been collected for the broken children. Mothers and fathers are in jail.
As we take a breath from the recent holiday child abuse spree and wait for the next spate of terrible crimes against children, isn’t it time to channel some of our grief and anger into actually stopping this misery?
If your reaction to that is, “Easier said than done,” I’d like to introduce you to Brian O’Connell.
O’Connell is the executive director of the New Mexico Child Advocacy Networks, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for vulnerable kids.
You might expect, given his job, that O’Connell would be either naively hopeful or worn down into a cynic.
He’s neither, actually. But he is blunt. O’Connell expects grown-ups to show up in life and act like grown-ups.
The gospel according to O’Connell goes like this: Anyone who has ever watched a kid get slapped in a supermarket, or seen young children left alone or overheard a conversation about sexual abuse going on in a home and not picked up a phone to report it is part of our big dysfunctional child abuse family.
“We really need to get over ourselves and quit making excuses and report,” he says.
Child abuse and neglect are crimes. Reports can be made by calling the state Department of Children, Youth and Families intake hotline or your local police.
|Make the call
To report child abuse or neglect in New Mexico, call #SAFE (#7233) from a cellphone or 1-855-333-SAFE (7233)
We all know that’s the right thing to do, but, oh, the ways we rationalize our inaction.
O’Connell observes that, despite our outrage when we hear about gruesome child abuse cases, “We will put any number of priorities ahead of, ‘This kid looks like they’re getting hurt.’ ”
I know all of the excuses for butting out when confronted with information about someone’s ugly family scene, but O’Connell helped me sort through them:
• Talking about this is really not my place.
• I think I know what happened, but what if I’m wrong?
• The family’s going to know I called.
• CYFD never does anything, so why bother?
Let’s go one by one through those excuses that keep us fretting about vulnerable kids but not actually stepping up to help protect them:
• Yes, it really is your place.
For starters, it’s the law in New Mexico that anyone who knows about or has reasonable suspicion that child abuse or neglect is going on must report it.
“The rules are different for these little guys,” O’Connell says. “You’re not interfering or sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong when you alert people to the possible harm of a child. You’re doing your duty.”
Second, CYFD by law can’t knock on a door and inquire about a child unless a report has been made. Reports of child abuse or neglect – by police officers, teachers, neighbors, family members, anyone – are the only way the state can initiate an investigation.
• If you’re giving honest information about what you heard or saw, you can’t be making a false report.
“There’s no such thing as that,” O’Connell says. “Just give them the information, and they’ll investigate it. You don’t have to have complete information. You don’t need to be an investigator.”
• You may make a report to CYFD anonymously.
Your name will never be brought up during the investigation, because no one at CYFD knows it. Even so, if you’re the only one who would know a particular bit of information, that could identify you to the family. If you’re worried about that, O’Connell suggests you consider whether avoiding an awkward moment outweighs a child’s well-being.
“If the reality is that that kid is being mistreated and this is my only chance to do anything about it, I need to take that chance,” he says.
• We’ve all read stories of child abuse in which it’s disclosed that CYFD had already been investigating and left the child in the home. A child welfare investigation is a process and often an imperfect one. But if you don’t give the agency the chance to intercede by making a report, you’re guaranteeing nothing happens.
“The community can’t respond unless the community is told. And right now, for better or for worse, our community is that state response,” O’Connell says. “When the operant theme is, ‘CYFD is going to fail,’ then CYFD will never improve because people won’t participate and demand them to.”
CYFD tells me that since the state changed the statewide reporting phone number to the catchy #SAFE and advertised it last spring, the call volume has doubled and there has been a 17 percent increase in the number of child victims identified. The message in those statistics is that when you call, kids get helped.
“Another thing I think we have to get over as a community is that we think we deserve to know what happens after we report,” O’Connell added. “We’re not going to get that. So get over that and call anyway. It’s going to feel like you just poured information down a hole, but guess what – something happened.”
It’s all some practical advice for those of us at loose ends about our role in the cycle of child abuse that’s happening here on our watch.
If you feel there’s more we should all be doing to keep kids safe, you can join a brainstorming meeting of other concerned citizens at 1 p.m. Feb. 5 at 4606 McLeod NE, Suite C. For more information, email email@example.com.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie Linthicum at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal