But I Didn’t Do Anything!
There is a common but sometimes overlooked problem when children are abused. Adults who are not directly responsible for injuries to their baby or child, but allow someone else to injure them, are permitting the abuse which has the same effect on the child. The law demands someone protect the child if the other parent won’t. But if no one notifies Child Protective Services, the child might not get the protection he or she deserves. A scenario I’ve seen more than a few times in my practice is the parent who is faced with an abusive co-parent who suffers from substance abuse. The sober parent sees himself or herself as the “good parent” who guards or protects the child from the “bad” parent. Sadly, that is not the case at all.
But I’m the Good Parent Who is Always There
First, you cannot always be there to “supervise” the other parent or adult. There are inevitably times you must leave the home or leave the other adult with your child. Constant protection and surveillance is unrealistic, especially when there is turbulence between the co-parents or other adults who are in the home or spend time around your child. In fact, when a romantic relationship between parents ends and they separate, the other parent might threaten to take the child as a way to get back at you, even when the child does not have a close relationship with him or her. The other parent might do so while driving drunk or under the influence of controlled substances. What if he or she is angry and starts throwing things at your child or at you while the child is watching? Or passed out and doesn’t hear the baby crying or the fire alarm? Or crying while waiving a weapon and making threats to hurt you and/or commit suicide?
Second, a parent who is intoxicated or impaired can be moody and easily agitated, which can lead to physical assaults. Time after time I see domestic violence cases filed after a baby is violently snatched from the arms of the “good” parent and used as a pawn to control her or him or to prevent the other parent from fleeing the home. As the child hears all sorts of chaos, screaming and cursing, the parent (and child) may be shoved, pushed, kicked or held against his or her will. Think about it: to your baby or child, it is meaningless whether or not you were the “good” parent or the bad parent that day.
Stop the Cycle
Parents forget the child sees the behavior modeled by both of them. Aside from teaching children to either become abusive, or tolerate an abusive partner when they grow up, allowing this type of environment is dangerous. It is not uncommon for children and teens to jump into the line of fire when they try to help the parent or sibling who is being abused in front of them. Children and teens are not equipped to handle this sort of trauma. Although there are some technical legal distinctions, child abuse is a form of domestic violence. Your kids are dependent on you for protection. It can be hard to break up with the other parent because you feel you are giving up security or the marriage but it is not a secure situation if you do nothing. In fact, the longer a victim stays with the abuser, the more chance the danger will grow. Victims of violence think they will miss the marriage or relationship with the other parent. However, it is sometimes the case that they miss the relationship they wish they had, not the relationship they are somehow managing to endure every day.
The Bottom Line
Parents are sometimes reluctant to call 911 when there is violence in the home. They should always call 911 when any violence occurs. Allowing the other parent or another adult to abuse or neglect your child just because they live with you is not okay. Additionally, it creates potential legal liability to you. Failing to remove your child from an abusive environment means Child Protective Services might do it for you because you knew about it and allowed it to happen. Or, it might mean you try to help your child after it is too late and the damage cannot be undone. There are many complex issues surrounding violent family relationships. If you are facing family violence, consult with a family law attorney immediately about how to safely remove yourself and your child from an abusive environment.
Resources in North Carolina (Victim Information Sheet) Or search online for form AOC-CV-323
Personalized Domestic Violence Safety Plan (checklist of things to do when facing violence in a relationship) from NC Dept. of Social Services. Or search online for form DSS-5233
Real Crisis Intervention in Greenville offers counseling, advocacy, information and referrals.
Laws change. This article is current as of 2023.