Why don't abuse witnesses speak up?

Saturday, December 22, 2007 11:30 PM EST

Daily American Staff Writer

During a child abuse investigation this month, Somerset Police talked to multiple witnesses who told them they saw Jason Flick, 27, Village Way, physically abuse his 2-year-old son, Kaleb.
But no one spoke up about it and police did not find out about the abuse until Flick and the boy's mother, Rogi Spangler, 19, took Kaleb to the hospital to be treated for skull fractures and a broken leg.

It's unusual that there were so many witnesses to the alleged abuse, but no one told police or child protection services about it, Somerset Police Chief Randy Cox said..

“Normally, when people see child abuse, they don't hesitate to call,” he said.

Cox cited two reasons why some people don't report abuse. Sometimes people are suspicious but not certain that abuse is happening and don't want to cause problems in the event they are wrong. In other cases, people fear retribution. They worry the person they accuse of abuse will seek revenge.

Other times, people are motivated not to see abuse, said Dr. Janet Squires, chief of the Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. This can happen in the case of parents who send their kids to day care because they work, she said.

Americans also have a tendency to mind their own business. They are hesitant to take any action that would bring them between a parent and a child, she said.

“I hold in my heart if most people know in their heart something is wrong they will come forward and say something,” Squires said.

Dr. Glenn Kashurba, a Somerset psychiatrist, said people may witness abuse but not report it because they don't want to get involved or they may think it is none of their business. They may not want to confront the abuser or believe they need a high percentage of proof that something happened. Many do not realize that they don't have to be someone like a physician or a teacher to report abuse.

For some people, who were abused themselves, it is acceptable behavior, he added.

Child and Youth Services takes anonymous complaints about abuse, though it is better when callers identify themselves, said CYS director Chuck Crimone. CYS always keeps callers' names confidential.

Complaints can also be made to the police. Anyone contacting the police about abuse can first expect to be asked many questions, as the officer tries to confirm whether the complaint should be investigated or dismissed.

At some point, the officer will attempt to confirm the complainant's identity, Cox said. Officers will accept anonymous information, but it immediately places the investigation at a disadvantage. Time is lost as officers try to independently verify the anonymous information.

When someone who is reporting abuse is afraid of retribution, police try as well as they can to keep the person's identity confidential, Cox said. Officers strive to verify the complainant's information, but warn them that it may become necessary to identify them.

“We have to be able to identify them, because in a criminal setting, any defendant has the right to confront his accuser,” Cox said.

If a crime is in progress, officers will report right away, he said. Reports of suspicions will be followed up on.

Many of the reports the police receive are made by medical staff, educators or parole officers. All are required by law to report suspected abuse.

But it's important community members also report suspicions, Cox said.

“Someone should call regardless of whether they are willing to identify themselves, because that may be the only lifeline that kid has,” he said.

(Daily American Staff Writer Vicki Rock contributed to this story. Rob Gebhart can be reached at robg@dailyamerican.com.)

Posted 12-24-07

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