When Bystanders Do Nothing They Open the Door to Abuse

Dear Engaged Bystander: When I give talks, I think that the hardest concept to get across is that our current frame for decision-making is wrong. Talk with anyone who sees something that makes them uncomfortable (e.g., a man pushing against a woman breasts in a NYC subway or a neighbor taking pictures of all the young girls at the public pool) and the decision they are trying to make is “to do something or do nothing”.  I think that when we are uncomfortable, we need to decide WHAT is the best and safest thing for me to do in this situation. And there are hundreds of actions we can take in ANY situation.  Having experienced the NYC subway, here are some things I have seen or heard: 

  • A young woman just comes out to loudly say to the man “That is just gross”,
  • A young man took a picture of him and quietly said if he did not stop it was getting sent to the police,
  • Upon exiting the car, one woman spoke with the young woman to see if this was a friend and if she was OK
  • An older man simply stepped in between the two of them creating a physical barrier
Imagine you are the young woman on the subway what message is she getting from all of the people doing nothing. Imagine you are watching this situation and then again, what message are you getting?
I recently read about a 17 year old high school junior who won a $1 million lawsuit from a Vermont school district where a principal, a teacher and a counselor were accused of failing to report their suspicions that a student was being sexually abused.   The lawsuit asserted that the school officials knew about the abuse for over a year but did not report what was happening to Josh Langlois (then 10 years old). During that year, the Josh continued to be sexually assaulted by his uncle who used a dog cage, dog collar and chains on his nephew.  After the prolonged and brutal sexual abuse, Josh was under custody of the state, bounced from school to school, had behavioral problems and lived for nearly two years at a residential care facility for sexually abusing behaviors. He now is living safely with a loving and stable foster family, getting good grades in school and making plans to attend college. 
Josh Langlois asked that his name be used so that he could speak about the case. When asked why, he replied that he wanted to highlight the law that requires teachers and others to report their suspicions of child abuse. He went on to say that just one phone call can save a child from abuse.
In a small town, I can understand someone’s reluctance to report someone they know if they are not totally sure that a child is being harmed.  But what we don’t often consider is the impact of our inactivity. In this case, Josh was sexually abused for more than a year. We need to find ways to see inaction as the deepest form of apathy and the only environment where sexual abuse can thrive. When asked whether you want to build a foundation for abuse, then doing nothing makes sense. 
Josh has experienced what it means to say nothing and then went on to demonstrate what it means to speak out as a victim and as a child who also harmed others. To me and I hope for all of us, he is a hero.