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Mary L. Pulido, Ph.D.

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Child Abuse: See Something? Hear Something? Please, Say Something!

Posted: 04/07/11 12:51 PM ET

See something? Hear something? Please, say something! No, this is not a terrorist alert warning about a strange package on a subway platform; it's for another type of terrorism: physical and sexual abuse of children. For the past 25 years, I have dedicated my career to trying to make New York City a safer, healthier place for children. It's a daily battle, but I intend to keep fighting, as I know that child abuse is preventable. It's everyone's job to protect children, not just the local authorities.

It's interesting that although the social media age has dramatically lowered the thresholds on privacy standards, and although many feel it's their right to know all, most adults are still reticent about reporting their suspicions about child abuse. How many times do we hear on the news, "I knew something was wrong, but I never thought he'd hurt the baby," or, "They are always fighting in that house, but you are afraid to get involved, don't know if they could turn on you."

Occasionally, I am uplifted by an unknown citizen getting involved to stop the abuse of children. On the news recently, a man called the police and was credited with saving a woman and her childrens' lives. Her estranged husband had stormed into the house and stabbed them all repeatedly. The Good Samaritan said, "I heard them fighting before, but this time it was the children screaming. You have to do something if the children are involved." How amazing, how brave, how good he must feel that his actions saved those children's lives.

Alarmingly, significant numbers of child abuse and neglect incidentes go unreported. It qualifies as an epidemic if you put it in medical terms, and the young victims often endure physical and mental health problems as a result. You would imagine that society would be clamoring for a solution.

You might be thinking, why add to those epidemic numbers? I'll explain. When a child is brought to the attention of the authorities charged with investigating these cases, the children and their parents can get the help that they need to prevent future abuse and strengthen their family unit. It can mean the difference between life and death for newborns and children under the age of four, when most fatalities occur.

So what is a concerned citizen to do? Perhaps you are not 100-percent sure about your concerns. Even if this is the case, you can and should take steps to help rescue the child. I counsel parents that if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that a child is at risk, that's enough to make a call to the state's child abuse hotline. Much child abuse occurs behind closed doors; therefore, it's important for concerned friends, family members and neighbors to be familiar with the signs. And children, particularly younger ones, who may not be in school yet, will probably not tell you that they've been hurt, so concerned adults need to be their advocates if they have suspicions.

It's not always easy to tell if a child was hurt while playing or roughhousing, or if they were deliberately harmed by their caretakers. Our website offers a guide to signs and symptoms.

So what are the steps in making a report? I recommend that all adults learn the basic steps and take action.

First of all, if you see a child being abused, or hear a child screaming in pain, call 911. If you have suspicions that a child is at risk, every state has a hotline that you can call to make a report. They will ask for your name and number, but you can choose to remain anonymous. Even if you are not certain about all the specifics, make the call. It's then up to the investigators to follow through.

Yes, taking action will probably make you anxious. That's understandable, as it's such an important undertaking. Nevertheless, you'll rest easier knowing that due to your intervention, the child and their parent will be getting help and attention. Remember, child abuse is preventable. Everyone must be part of the solution.

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The NYSPCC has launched their first text campaign. To make a $10 donation, please text "NYSPCC" to 50555. All proceeds will benefit The NYSPCC and help fund all programs to prevent abuse and help more children and families heal.