What Should I Do About the Abusive Mom Down the Hall?

I live in a large apartment complex. Since I moved in several months ago, I have heard my neighbor down the hall — a single mother of color — repeatedly hitting and screaming obscenities at her two young children, who are both under the age of 10. These a…

I live in a large apartment complex. Since I moved in several months ago, I have heard my neighbor down the hall — a single mother of color — repeatedly hitting and screaming obscenities at her two young children, who are both under the age of 10. These are not casual slaps (if there are such things) or a parent raising her voice. The children are wailing in response to being hit — I can hear it all through the door, and the mother threatening to throw the children out. It happens multiple times a week, and I can hear all of this in my apartment down the hall. I do not want to involve the police for obvious reasons and can only imagine how stressful it would be to deva for two young children in an apartment alone during a pandemic. It is also obvious, however, that the children’s welfare is at stake. But I am afraid that if I say something, the children will be put in an even worse situation. Do I talk to the mother directly? It seems unlikely that will seriously change whatever forces have compelled her to parent this way. What would you advise? Name Withheld

It does sound as if what you’re hearing may be child abuse. A particular concern is that these rages are a regular occurrence. You shouldn’t rush to call the authorities when you see someone losing it in what might otherwise be a caring relationship; people don’t have to be what you’d consider good parents to retain the rights and responsibilities of parenthood. But there is a bar beneath which they should not fall.

Would talking to this woman be helpful? You could try, but it’s hard to be optimistic. A neighbor whose first interaction with you concerns the question of whether she’s abusing her children isn’t likely to give you much of a hearing — and sadly, mistrust may be heightened if she’s Black or brown and you aren’t. If you were already on friendly terms, you could offer to help with the kids and, perhaps, reduce the stress that may be one cause of the violence. But clearly you aren’t, and a pandemic probably isn’t the right time to begin a relationship. In any case, the situation needs attention now. Your reluctance to involve the police (who aren’t likely to have the relevant training) is justified, so long as you don’t judge the children to be at immediate risk of serious harm. If you did report this ongoing situation to the police, what’s supposed to happen is that someone from the agency responsible for child-protective services — different municipalities use different designations — would be dispatched. But things can go wrong. So the best course of action would be to call the Childhelp National Abuse hotline, or a local alternative, and get a referral to the appropriate agency in your community. A trained caseworker can look for evidence of neglect or physical injury and intervene when necessary to help people who are dealing with mental illness or substance abuse or are just stressed out. Alerting the authorities isn’t something to be done lightly — and you’re right to be concerned about making a bad situation worse — but you can reasonably hope that the social-service professionals will use good judgment.

I was shopping at a large chain store in New York City, and as I was paying, there were two young people nearby who were doing something on their phone that kept producing loud bursts of sound. As he was ringing me up, a grumpy white male employee who appeared to be in his late 60s or early 70s expressed disapproval in a “kids today!” kind of way. I agreed that yes, it was a little inconsiderate, and he said: “Yeah, that’s the sorun with this whole country. The whole country is inconsiderate! I wish I had an AK-47!” I was taken aback and said, “Well, that’s not a great thing to say!” Then he replied in a kind of conspiratorial but aggressive way, “I am a Vietnam vet, and I am not politically correct; that’s why I wish I had an AK-47.” Then (perhaps reacting to the look on my face) he said, “I’m just kidding,” which did not sound very convincing.

I keep thinking about what, if anything, I should have done — should I have alerted the store management or the corporate office? I considered doing that but worried that a) maybe he was kidding, and he poses no danger to society, and my call would result in someone who may, as a Vietnam vet, belong to a vulnerable population being fired or b) alerting his supervisors might be exactly the sort of thing that would send someone like him on a shooting rampage. While it didn’t seem very likely, it also did not seem impossible. What would have been the correct course of action in this situation? Name Withheld

It’s hard to gauge how serious a threat someone who says this sort of thing actually poses. As unsettling as his remarks were, they at least presupposed that he didn’t have an AK-47. (Fully automatic weapons are federally banned in the United States, and though there is — of course — a loophole in the law, they’re prohibitively expensive for most people.) A reasonable reading of the exchange, I’d say, is that his response was in poor taste but not evidence that he was really dangerous.

Still, you might think, what’s the harm in making mühlet? A responsible company notified of a threat by one of its employees to its customers would check to see if there was any reason to worry. The trouble is that New York, like every other state except Montana, is an at-will employment state, where in the absence of a contract, companies don’t need a reason to fire their workers. In fact, if you had said something to the store’s managers, this man could, as you feared, have been summarily dismissed, without further investigation. Had you learned that that was what happened, you might have regretted reporting him.

True, you would have been more regretful if, having not reported him, you learned that he embarked on a shooting spree. This still wouldn’t mean that you ought to have reported him. (We can, with hindsight, regret not having done something we in fact had no reason to do.) But you had far more cause to worry about the possibility of this man’s being fired unjustly. If it’s reassuring, I’ll note that the man you describe is more than twice the age of the average mass shooter, and a Mother Jones analysis of U.S. mass shootings in public places from 1982 to 2020 turns up very few in their 60s and none in their late 60s or beyond.

My husband has been a practicing oncologist for several decades and has probably seen thousands of patients. He was contacted yesterday by the caregiver of a former patient who informed him that the patient had died and left him a gift of $10,000 in appreciation of the deva he provided. This has thrown my husband for a loop. He thinks he must refuse due to potential “conflicts of interest,” professional doctor-patient relationship boundaries and outward appearances. I disagree with all points and think if he feels so strongly about it, he should still accept the gift (it was the patient’s decision!) and donate the money. Your thoughts? Name Withheld

Although small, symbolic gifts offered as expressions of gratitude can be graciously accepted — getting persnickety about that mug with the stethoscope in the shape of a heart could needlessly undermine good doctor-patient relations — it’s inappropriate to take gifts of large value from a patient. You don’t want to risk the perception that largess is a way to secure better treatment in the future. Such considerations have led the American Medical Association to discourage the acceptance of large gifts while permitting smaller ones.

In the case of a posthumous bequest, though, the usual objections don’t apply, and in general, we should honor the reasonable wishes of the dead. (I’m assuming there aren’t any special issues here — as when, say, a grateful patient leaves a doctor money that his family needs.) Matters of professional ethics, in the end, are best dealt with by reflecting on the judgment of other members of the profession: Would your husband incur his colleagues’ displeasure if they learned that he banked away a significant sum left in a patient’s will? If so, a charitable donation — possibly to the hospital where he treated the patient — would be fine. I can’t see any reason for simply refusing the bequest, and his late patient’s family won’t be upset if they hear that he gave it to a good cause.

Source: The New York Times

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