Stories about child abuse have always horrified me – but maybe more so now that I have two beautiful children of my own. When I hear about the incomprehensible things mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, stepfathers and stepmothers, do to their loved ones, I look at my little ones and wonder how on earth anyone could hurt the most vulnerable, these little life forces who rely on us to take care of them and give them a happy life.
So needless to say, when I was pitched a story about how few Americans are actually reporting abuse when they suspect it, I knew it was something I wanted to do. When I learned more, including how four children die every day from child abuse and neglect – that's right four children dying every day – I thought if there were more public awareness, maybe more lives could be saved.
I had a chance to talk with 26-year-old Julia Charles, who is one of the most inspirational young women I have talked with in my reporting career. She endured years of brutal beatings as a kid at the hands of her biological mother. She uses the term "biological mother" because she's since been adopted by her foster mother whom she calls her mom.
"I remember scrubbing the bathtub and getting hit with a broomstick across my back, I remember things like that," she said during an interview. She got the most emotional when she talked about eventually being freed of the abuse, but being separated from her siblings in foster care.
"I think losing my sister was like," she said and then paused for a few seconds before continuing, "I don't think I'll ever heal from that, those years."
We also met 20-year-old Wendy Spronk whose laughter with her foster care family is a world away from the hell she experienced as a kid.
"My step-mom was abusive," she said in an interview. "It was really hard for me, it was both emotionally and physically, so at times it was very difficult."
Wendy says she told some school authorities, who knew what was happening, but that her step-mother portrayed her as a liar so people never quite believed what she had to say. Julia says her grades were falling and she became more withdrawn – and yet family members, neighbors and teachers didn't ask any questions.
"I felt let down by all of the people who had authority and didn't use it," she said.
According to a new national survey by the leading victim's assistance organization, Safe Horizon, released Thursday, one in five Americans who suspected abuse did nothing at all or weren't sure what to do. Only 12 percent called police or other authorities while 19 percent contacted child protective services.
"Even if people are living next door and hear it, there's been a lot of reluctance to get involved in somebody else's business," said Dr. Jamie Hoffman-Rosenfeld, a pediatrician who has been working on child abuse cases for 20 years and now works at one of Safe Horizon's child advocacy centers for child abuse victims headed by former prosecutor Myra Shapiro.
Shapiro notes how the survey found that 62 percent were not aware they could report child abuse anonymously and how 80 percent said knowing they could remain anonymous made them more likely to report suspected abuse in the future.
"To take that action is a very scary thing for people, and we don't want them to be scared," said Shapiro, who spent most of her career as a prosecutor in Queens Family Court. "It would be scarier if they did not act and something horrible happened to that child."
Remember the sobering statistic I mentioned at the start – four children die every day from child abuse and neglect.
Beside finding that people are afraid and unknowing about where to report abuse, the survey also found that people don't know that the warning signs extend far beyond the physical. It's not just bumps and bruises. It could be a change in behavior, a fear of going home, an unkempt appearance – or even a change in school performance or attendance.
"I had like a 3.5 GPA and it went from a 3.5 to like a 1.9 in one semester," Julia said. "Someone should have said something."
Julia says an older brother who reached out for help saved her life. Wendy eventually ran away to a friend's house and says never giving up saved hers. Wendy's now a college student, Julia's a master's degree student who has written a book called, "Surviving the Storm: The Life of a Child in Foster Care."
You can't help but marvel at how far these two young women have come after living a nightmare in their own homes. You also can't help but wonder how much more of their childhood could have been saved had people intervened sooner.
Safe Horizon has launched a new national public awareness campaign called Hope Shining. Go to HopeShining.org to find out where you can go to report child abuse and to learn all the warning signs.
As Myra Shapiro said, we all have a responsibility. "We are talking about mothers who see their neighbor's child, we are talking about fathers who might drive a taxi and see children on the street as they go," Shapiro said. "It's anybody and everybody, as a community, we are all responsible for the children."