Dear Carolyn • I live in a complex that has a lot of families in it, though it's just my husband and me. There are always kids playing outside. All of them are sweet and polite, and I love seeing them, but I rarely see parents.
This past weekend, I finally met one of the parents. I've seen as many as seven children on her porch, and I don't know how many live in her house, but I'd say at least three. She came outside with her boy, calling him names, cursing at him, and then he ran away to play with the other kids.
It didn't take long for me to realize she was completely wasted at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, with slurred language, hitting on my husband, giving us hugs, trying to get in the car with us ... it was bad. The looks on the kids' faces, too, were just heartbreaking.
What do I do? My heart aches every time I see one of those children, and I want so much to FIX it, though I know I can't, so I'd settle for helping, but I'm at a loss. Is this something you call the authorities for?
Dear Neighbor • When it's that bad, yes, it is.
I realize there is a sense of crossing a Rubicon when calling the police or child-protective services on a parent of putting them in "the system," of possibly doing more harm than good. I also understand why this sense is often enough to keep people from making the call.
At the same time, if these kids are in crisis, then it's every witness' duty to speak up.
That's why I recommend Childhelp so often in this space. It's a nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of child abuse, and it has a hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD that you can call when you're in the grip of oh-this-is-awful-what-on-earth-do-I-do paralysis. The hotline staff can bring three things that are critical in these situations: calm, expertise, and follow-up questions that get at the context of what you witnessed. Share the decision about what to do with someone who is available in the moment to help you make it.
Carolyn Hax's column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.