In early May, Lauren Fristed and George Landell were arrested on charges of murdering their 10-week-old daughter, Nevaeh Marie.
According to police statements, the mother tried to breastfeed during the first weeks of the baby’s life but was unable to produce enough milk. The Georgia couple said they didn’t have enough money for formula, so they started diluting the breast milk with water. Nevaeh died of water intoxication. At the time of her death, the baby had lost nearly 20 percent of her birth weight.
The religious beliefs of at least one of the alleged perpetrators may have played a role. Landell told police he was praying repeatedly and trying to force feed the baby on the last day of her life. He said he believed God would bring his daughter back to life if she died. (The baby’s name is “Heaven” spelled backwards.) Police say Fristed told the couple’s spiritual advisor that she wanted to get formula and medical care for the baby but instead obeyed her husband who objected to taking the baby to a doctor.
Perhaps even more shocking, others had seen the child in her neglected state and didn’t report to authorities that they suspected maltreatment. A few neighbors who were questioned by police said they noticed the baby was often inappropriately dressed for cool weather, wasn’t kept clean, and had a bad odor.
Not one witness—the neighbors, the spiritual advisor, or even the child’s own mother—called Child Protective Services or a child abuse hotline to report their concerns.
Sadly, this case isn’t unique. Each year, there are more than 3 million reports of abuse and neglect, cases that involve more than 6 million children. (In 2013, an estimated 679,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect). But many more cases go unreported. Which leaves open the question, why don’t more people report maltreatment?
Here are six reasons why people don’t report abuse and neglect and facts for you to consider if you suspect a child is being harmed.
Reason #1: I don’t have proof that abuse or neglect is actually happening.
It’s important to think carefully about the decision to report, but you don’t have to prove it’s going on. Most states’ mandatory reporting laws state that you must report abuse if you suspect or have reasonable cause to believe it’s happening.
Reason #2: I don’t want to cause trouble with the victim’s family.
Many people fear reporting will cause conflict between them and the family members of the victim. However, most, if not all, states allow people to report anonymously which offers privacy to the reporter while ensuring that the information is still reported.
Reason #3: If I do nothing, someone else will report the abuse.
It’s easy to assume that others will step up and call authorities, especially if there are others closer to the situation. But it’s imperative that anyone who suspects abuse reports it. A victim’s relatives or close friends may not file a report, so it’s up to other witnesses to intervene. Also, multiple reports can’t hurt, because they can prove helpful in an investigation.
Reason #4: Authorities can’t be trusted to protect children.
We’ve all heard about tragic cases in which Child Protective Services seems to ignore pleas to help a child. There have been times when authorities return a child to a home and the child is then hurt or even killed. As horrific as these cases are, they are extremely rare. Most of the time, CPS workers—who struggle with large caseloads—are protecting children from harm every day.
Reason #5: My religious community’s leaders don’t want outside authorities involved.
Some religious communities don’t report abuse, preferring to handle cases internally. Members may believe they know better than outside authorities about how to investigate such cases. Some think they should follow “God’s laws” instead of those passed by governmental entities. Others fear persecution if outsiders find out that a child in their midst is being abused. It’s critical to allow professionally trained individuals, such as social workers, police, and prosecutors, to investigate and try such cases. This helps ensure that victims receive counseling services and perpetrators are held accountable.
Reason #6: Parents, especially religious parents, know what’s best for their own children.
It’s true that most parents, including people of faith, don’t abuse or neglect their kids. Still many do. Some struggle with such issues as substance abuse or mental illness. Some religious groups pose a particular risk to children because, like Nebaeh Marie’s father, they justify maltreatment with religious doctrine.
It takes courage to report child abuse. If you suspect a child is in danger and find yourself feeling anxious about contacting authorities, remember. . . you might be the only person willing to take a stand to protect him or her. You might even help to save a life.
To report child abuse or neglect, call your state’s toll-free number or the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). If you are witnessing possible abuse or neglect and need to alert authorities right away, call 9-1-1. A helpful link for what to do if you see or suspect that a child is being harmed can be found here.