Editor’s note: The below article has been adapted from Mary Jo Pitzl’s article on azcentral.com
Residents of the Perris, Calif., neighborhood where 13 children were apparently held captive and tortured by their parents said they had no idea anything was amiss with the family.
The area’s social-welfare agency said they got no calls about the family. Authorities report the children were malnourished to the point that seven of the adult children were taken for minors, and some were found chained to their beds or other furniture.
Reports are now emerging that neighbors thought the family “odd,” that there was a strange smell coming from the four-bedroom home and that the homeschooled children looked pale and would not interact on the few occasions they were seen outside.
Yet, no one called authorities.
So when should individuals pick up the phone and call the police, or child-protective services?
It can be a murky question for people who are worried about a child’s well-being, but also fret about getting too deep into the family affairs of a friend, neighbor or relative.
Here are some answers from Arizona authorities that could be extended beyond state lines.
1. When should Child-Protective Services be called?
Each state has its own child welfare agency. For Arizona, the agency says to call the child-abuse hotline if you reasonably believe that a child has been “abused, neglected, exploited or abandoned.”
It’s better to report than to run the risk of a child being harmed, said Cynthia Weiss, the agency’s communications director. And don’t assume someone else has called.
2. Can I report neglect or abuse anonymously?
Many state agencies, including Arizona, allow people to report anonymously. However, check your individual state laws beforehand.
3. What number do I call?
To find your state’s number, visit this list by clicking here.
4. Should I call 911 or the child-abuse hotline?
Phoenix police Sgt. John Howard says dial 911 if you suspect a child is being abused at the very time you’re making the call. Police can get there faster than a state agency. Otherwise, call the state hotline.
5. What is considered child ‘neglect’?
- “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation”; or
- “An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”
To find out how to access your state’s individual definitions, click here.
Tim Schmaltz, a member of the Arizona chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and a past state child-welfare official, cautions people to use common sense.
“We don’t want to criminalize poverty,” he said, noting that many of the markers of neglect can stem from a family’s economic condition.
Try talking to the parents of the child you’re concerned about first, if possible, Schmaltz said. Maybe a hand up is all they need and perhaps neighbors, or a local church or school can help.
But if that doesn’t work, or isn’t possible, don’t hesitate to call the hotline. Better to be safe than sorry.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl. Taylor Seely contributed to this article: email@example.com.