What should you do if you see an abused child on public transit?

What should you do if you see an abused child on public transit?
Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune

I knew they were trouble from the way they walked into the Red Line car, treating the strollers like luggage. And the children in the strollers like luggage. Just something that you have to lug along with you but you don't really care if it gets beat up a bit.

The poor kids were not much younger than my own daughter.

Both couples parked their strollers. The men then tried to ride between the cars to smoke, but one woman grabbed her partner, trying to wrestle him back into his seat, and playfully tried to slap him. The look on his face was clear--she would pay for that slap later. When people aren't watching.

She lost the wrestling match and he went to smoke in between the cars with his buddy.

The toddler looked on with anticipatory horror. She wanted to cry, but wouldn't. Couldn't.

The mom didn't make eye contact with her daughter at any point, no reassuring touch on the arm.

No love.

When her partner came back from smoking, she got up and sat elsewhere in the car, and her daughter looked sad, upset to be stuck with this man. She started fussing--her hand was hurt somehow? I'm not sure, and he tended to her, but the tentative hunh huhn huhn didn't bring her mom running--she was too busy being mad at her partner. He tended to the toddler instead, and she quieted down, but still she looked terrified.

Meanwhile, the other guy tried to feel up the woman, his own partner. In full view of the train, of their own daughter. She looked used to it. She was quiet, drawing no attention to herself. She was just luggage.

No overt acts of abuse was committed, aside from one couple leaving their child behind while they wrestled near the emergency exit of the car, and the other couple showing no propriety in front of their daughter.

It was neglect. They were just...luggage. I've seen bags of groceries treated with more care than these children. It was clear they were neglected. Abused. Raised in a chaotic home (in a clinical sense, not the normal chaos of a dual-income household).

I watched them closely, agonizing. Should I intervene? When? Is it bad enough to call the cops?

There were no acts of actual direct physical or verbal abuse, but so, so many signs of it. I didn't know their names in order to report it to DCFS, which would be the ideal so that they can get parenting coaching.

I did nothing. And I agonized over it for hours, sad for the girls, wanting so much to swoop them up and give them the love they craved.

I asked around. Doing nothing was the right thing to do. Watching for abuse was the right thing to do, and so was doing nothing. There was nothing I could have done, even though all the signs were there, that this is an abused child.

People who work with children say that sometimes things get worse when someone tries to intervene (probably especially an untrained person like me.) I can concur--if anyone ever wondered about me and my siblings, I am sure my dad would have doubled-down on his efforts to make sure our pretending game was strong, that nobody could ever again guess what goes on at home.

So, what do you do if you see an abused child?

Nothing.

If you don't know who they are to report it to DCFS, you can't do anything.

If there are no overtly abusive acts committed while you watched, you can't do anything.

Maybe, if I was seated closer, I could have engaged with the child, provided a mini-refuge. Maybe, if I was closer, I could have whispered reassuring things. Maybe, if I was closer, I could have engaged the parents, telling them how adorable and bright their daughter was, to redirect their attention back to where it belongs.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

But...I couldn't.

Little ones, just know that there are people out there who care. Who want to help. Who will provide the love and structure you need.

Little ones, we love you.

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