A few weeks back, my family and I moved from a middle class, largely Pakeha suburb in Dunedin to a poor, multi-ethnic one in Lower Hutt. My partner took our two small kids to the nearby playground a couple of days after our arrival, and came back quite upset shortly afterwards.
My partner, A., had been chatting to another bloke at the playground while their respective kids had fun. It was a normal and friendly conversion. Everything was fine until the bloke started shouting at his partner, screaming things like 'I'll smash your fucking face in', in front of scared bystanders and the couple's children. He'd then driven away, but had come back a couple of times to scream more abuse. Looking beleaguered, the woman eventually took her kids off on foot, since her partner had disappeared with the family car.
A. came back upset, partly because of what he'd seen, and partly because he'd simply had no idea what to do to help. He'd been afraid for the safety of our own family, and afraid that if he tried to intervene, he would provoke the bloke into worse mistreatment of his partner. A. said that all the other onlookers were equally horrified, but felt equally powerless.
This is a situation I've encountered a few times, and thought about many times. Occasionally, I've intervened in conflicts, because the advocacy work I've done in the past has given me a sense of when it's safe to step in - but most people don't get a chance to learn this skill, and as I've said A., you shouldn't intervene if you can't be sure of your safety. He and I once called the Police when we saw a neighbour having a vicious fistfight with a drunken guest. We were relieved we'd done it - but we also spent the next few days scared of retribution from next door.
Now and again I wonder whether the conflicts I see or hear amongst people around me are evidence of abuse or violence. This makes me fret and wonder if I'm developing some sort of middle class siege mentality (always afraid of what those 'other' people may be up to), whether I'm being a bit holier than thou, or if I'm just getting prone to moral panics in my old age. I know people, often solo mums, who've found they've been reported to CYF (or, back in the day, Social Welfare) for being inadequate parents - dobbed in erroneously by people either being busybodies, or simply being malicious. Usually, my ethos is, 'If in doubt, intervene', but this can sometimes make matters worse; and it's not much help if you simply don't know how to intervene.
I am a strong supporter of the 'It's not OK' campaign against family violence. Research indicates that it is having a quicker than expected impact on people's views of violence. Perhaps the next step for anti-violence campaigners is to help people like me - well-meaning, but a bit useless - to know what it is we can do to help.