Picture this: You’re on the bus and you see a mother with three beautiful school-age children and one adorable toddler in a stroller. The children are well-behaved, the toddler is babbling excitedly, and the mother is yelling at the children, especially the toddler, even covering his mouth, threatening to slap his face if he doesn’t sit still and be quiet.
What would you do?
You see the mother again. This time with the father, presumably. The toddler is there, crawling all over daddy, who seems to savor the attention and returns it affectionately, soft-spoken and patient. The mother sits there, staring into space, and you realize she doesn’t look well. In fact, she looks absolutely exhausted. The father gets off the bus at the same stop as you do, while the mother and toddler remain on the bus.
Do you follow the father, tell him about the incident you saw, or does your heart go out to the mother, chalking the prior incident up to one of those proverbial bad days?
You see this mother on the bus and the trolley several more times and her behavior is the same. You find yourself wishing you’d taken the earlier bus, and you feel like an emotional hostage. Then, on another day, she’s yelling even louder and you see her practically slam her toddler into the seat to make him stay, screaming at the top of her lungs. The other children look around in embarrassment, well, at least one appears to do so, meets your eyes for a moment, then turns away. You find yourself wondering if this is one of those silent pleas for help or a non-verbal request to ignore the situation. The little girl returns to playing with her sister while the elder brother sits across the row with the mother who finally picks up the toddler, sets him on her lap. When they get off the bus, the toddler is sleeping.
Why didn’t I say or do anything? Why didn’t anyone else? I can’t help but wonder what was reeling through their minds. I know what was reeling through mine. . Are they, like me, resisting the urge to speak with her or the driver? Are they, like me, disturbed by what they see? Do they wonder if it’s worse at home? After all, if the mother will behave like this on the bus, how does she behave at home?
While some passengers may believe it’s none of their business, the fact that these (and other incidences) are occurring on the bus right in front of us, makes it part of our immediate experience. The bus is a public space, and as such, what occurs is governed by written and unwritten rules of conduct. But what about our conscience? Our civic duties ? What are the legal, as well as ethical, guidelines?
The last incident I witnessed prompted me to talk to the driver. I informed him of the ongoing situation with this mother and her children, and that I had been ready to ask him to stop the bus and contact the police department. While he showed genuine concern, the driver said that I needed to contact MTS to determine their policies. He also added that if he did intervene, the mother could complain that her civil rights were being violated. I left a rather detailed message with MTS, but they haven’t returned my call. I will try again.
Since I wanted to find out how to properly proceed in a situation like this, I contacted the San Diego Police Department’s Western Division and spoke with Community Relations Officer Dave Suwillo. He stated that the police department “would prefer to be involved within the early stages of a situation in order to calm it before it escalates.” Since interpretations of a situation tend to be subjective, if the situation hasn’t escalated, but would benefit from intervention, Suwillo stated that a passenger could move a safe distance away from the situation to contact 911 or the non-emergency number at 619-531-2000.
“We would rather show up, talk to the individuals, and educate them as to acceptable displays of child rearing practices prior to making an arrest,” says Suwillo. “However, if it is clear an adult or a child is being assaulted or abused and the situation has already escalated, it’s important to call 911 for immediate intervention.” He also added that it’s important to stay on-the-line when speaking with dispatch, and to provide the bus number, time and heading so that the department can do their best to intervene. In some cases, the police may hold the bus, while in others they may remove the individuals to discuss the situation and allow the bus to proceed on its route. In cases where the police need to hold the bus, they usually do their best to obtain another bus as soon as possible so that the passengers can reach their destinations.
In closing, interpretations are definitely subjective, but if you believe a situation warrants an intervention, trust your instincts and pull out that cell phone. If you know any parents (or their children) who need assistance, be there for them if you’re able. If not, then direct them toward parenting classes, counseling, or other relevant services, by contacting San Diego’s Help Line at 211 or by visiting their website at www.211sandiego.org.