When Erika Burch saw a little girl being dragged around a Texas Walmart by her hair, the first thing she did was take pictures with her cellphone. Then, she confronted the girl's father, who had wrapped the girl's hair around a shopping-cart handle to punish the girl for misbehaving. When the father refused to let the girl's hair go, Burch called the police.
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The police determined that they had no valid reason to arrest the father for abuse. According to Burch, the sergeant at the scene said the father had a right to discipline his child. Frustrated with the response, Burch did what more and more people do these days to get justice: She posted the pictures on Facebook.
Her post starts with a plea to make the story go viral, and it certainly did. The post has been shared almost a quarter-million times and has racked up more than 25,000 comments. Her goal seems to be to draw enough attention to the incident for the police in Cleveland, Texas, to revisit the case. Her all-caps post exclaims, "THIS IS BEYOND WRONG AND SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE DONE ABOUT IT!!!"
A recent New York Times article, which my co-hosts and I discuss on the latest episode of the Parenting Bytes Podcast, examines when it's OK to meddle in someone else's parenting choices. According to Burch, the Texas Walmart example seems pretty clear-cut: She reported that, of the hundreds of messages she's gotten about the incident, 98 percent have been supportive of her actions, and she is encouraging people to keep calling the police department about it.
Technology has made it easier than ever to blow the whistle, and viral pressure on a police department might actually work. Just a few months ago, an Oregon father was desperate to get justice for his son, whom he claimed had been hit by a babysitter. The police refused to arrest the babysitter on the grounds that the abuse would be difficult to prove, because the victim was too young to speak. So the father, Joshua Marbury, posted pictures of his son's bruises on Facebook, begging the police to do something.
The hashtag #JusticeForJacob took off. A Change.org petition aimed at the Oregon Supreme Court got more than 50,000 signatures. A GoFundMe page collected more than $7,000 to help the family with attorney fees, counseling and household expenses.
After the post was shared hundreds of thousands of times, the babysitter was indicted, and he turned himself in.
However, if you witness a child being mistreated, posting to social media probably shouldn't be your first option. According to the Child Welfare Information Agency, if you suspect child abuse you can make an anonymous call 24/7 to 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453). Their counselors have access to many different types of services and support. Of course, if you don't know the people involved and are witnessing the abuse as it happens, your best option is probably to call 911.
You can hear us talk about this topic and more on the Parenting Bytes Podcast.