Is it right to step in if a child is being abused in public?
A coffee in the morning sunshine turns into an ugly scene... but should we stand up and take action, asks Niamh Horan
Would you intervene if you saw a child being abused?
So much child abuse takes place behind closed doors that surely it's incumbent on us to step in when we witness it in a public place. It seems like the ultimate no-brainer. Yet, faced with the reality, you may be forced to think twice.
Sitting outside a well-known Dublin cafe recently, I was enjoying coffee with an old friend in the morning sunshine when the roaring started. A middle-aged, well-dressed man had his son in a deadlock in his arms. With the child facing front, crying and visibly distressed, the man was squeezing him with all his force and shouting into his small face.
The child couldn't have been more than four or five years old and looked tiny, as the man roared at the top of his lungs, pressing his moving mouth into his cheek and shaking him as the boy dangled his legs helplessly. I looked around the terrace and every customer shared the same look of disgust.
My friend shook her head at me. "Unbelievable. Crazy," she said. I echoed the sentiment and she replied: "Don't get involved. I've seen that so many times. I have had to sit and say nothing even when I saw it happening to friends with their kids. You just can't get involved."
The man dumped the child down on the side of the path and stormed off.
Within seconds the mother came to his aid, scooping up the boy and trying to comfort him. The easy-going mood of that mild morning was ruined by the ugly scene but eventually we started to settle into conversation again when the man came back to have another go at the child.
He roared again in the child's face as the mother held her son to her chest.
Then he clipped the child across the face. Instinct uprooted me before I realised I was standing. "OK, OK, that's enough," I warned, putting my hand out and telling him to calm down. "He's only small." The man spun around to face me and a look of shame washed over his face.
It's the single greatest emotion. Psychologists such as Brene Brown have credited it with destroying society and individuals but here I saw it actually serve a purpose.
He was speechless.
A look of horror in his eyes, and for a moment I thought he would turn on me.
I was considering how close the door of the restaurant was if I needed to step inside when he quickly took off down the street.
Then the wife took over. And something told me she wasn't about to offer gratitude.
"You f*cking b*tch," she roared, "you f*cking cow. F*ck you! F*ck you! Don't you f*cking dare tell my husband what to do," she spat before taking off after her spouse, child in arms.
Someone told me afterwards that she may have needed to stand up for the man in public because she knew that if she didn't she was going to get it when they got home so it's unfair to judge.
But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't shaken. Hindsight told me it could have easily turned nasty.
So would I do it again? Does intervention even make a difference?
A small part of me hoped it would make the man think twice before treating his son the same again.
But then we all know that abuse doesn't work like that.