On Seeing a Neighbor Hit Their Child, What Maile Did Right, and What I Would Do Differently


About a week ago, I pulled up to the curb on James Street in time to see someone’s car being loaded onto the flatbed of a tow truck. I had seen the Lancaster parking authority vehicles earlier that morning, and a few of their employees going door to door, trying to find the owner of the vehicle, which happened to be blocking a business’s garage. They hadn’t been able to find them, so the car was getting towed.

I crawled out of my own car and walked towards the house when I heard a woman shout at the top of her voice.

“Noooooooo! Nooooooo!”

I glanced across the street, and she came flying out of the apartments. She was on her phone with someone else while shouting at the man operating the tow truck.

“Noooooooo! Nooooooo! What the f***! What are you doing?”

I didn’t want to hang around for the ugly scene sure to follow, so I started walking up the steps to the house. That’s when Maile pulled up in the Suburban and parked. She had just been to the grocery store. She kissed me and said hello and we started taking groceries into the house and catching up on what we’d been doing that morning.

But the woman got louder and louder until it sounded like she was losing her mind. She kept shouting obscenities – at the driver, at whoever she was talking to on the phone, at the sky. The driver stood there staring at her with something like amazement. The car was halfway onto the truck, and he didn’t seem to know what to do.

Then a little girl came wandering out of the apartment, maybe seven years old, her hair up in a ponytail on top of her head. The mother was shouting at someone on her phone, and when she saw the girl she made a beeline for the apartment. Maile and I were in and out during this time, but what we heard next brought us to a halt right there on the sidewalk.

The woman was pounding on her apartment door, inside the building, and we could hear her screaming and wailing, her hands thudding against the wood. The little girl edged out onto the porch, away from her mother. The woman was terrifying.

“WHAT DID YOU DO!” the woman screamed, somehow finding another volume level, and now her voice was aimed at the little girl. She came out onto the porch and grabbed hold of the little girl’s arm. “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS? WHAT THE F*** WERE YOU THINKING? YOU LOCKED US OUT OF THE APARTMENT! YOU LOCKED US OUT!”

“That’s not right,” Maile said, pausing, staring across the street. We were both frozen. The woman continued screaming at the child. “Hon, that’s not right,” Maile said again. The little girl was crying, cowering on the porch. The mother’s rage only grew. Her voice was louder.

“She can’t do that,” Maile said louder, her voice cracking. “She can’t talk to her that way.”

Then, the woman jerked her little girl’s arm with one hand, and with the other she hauled back and hit her hard, across the head.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Maile said, starting across the street, her normally gentle voice getting louder with each “no.” I have never seen her like this before. I followed her with a strange numbness setting in, the kind that accompanies disbelief. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Maile was in the middle of the street, standing on the double-yellow line. The woman heard her, turned to look.

“You can’t hit her!” Maile shouted. “Stop it! Stop hitting her.”

The woman came flying down the steps to the edge of the curb.

“MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!” she screamed, over and over again. And no matter what Maile said, no matter how Maile pleaded, the woman screamed the same thing. “MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!” The woman had a crazed look on her face, still holding her telephone, and I thought she was about to come running out on the street and punch Maile. Here we go, I thought. This is where I defend my wife and, let’s be honest, get beat up by some strange woman. I pulled out my phone and called 911.

But there was an invisible wall between the two of them, something that kept them physically separated. The woman kept shouting, MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS, and Maile kept shouting, SHE’S JUST A LITTLE GIRL! I don’t know what invisible force eventually snapped, but whatever held them together in that opposition dissolved in minutes, moments. The woman suddenly turned her back on Maile and vanished back inside the apartment building, only to resume her bashing on the door. Maile stood there for a moment, and later she told me she was talking to the little girl from about fifteen feet away.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered up the stairs to her, tears running down her face. “I’m so sorry.”

Then, Maile came back across the street while I spoke with the 911 operator and relayed what was going on. Maile kept weeping, sobs shaking her body. She walked past me and up the porch steps to where my daughter Lucy was standing, also watching the entire thing, and Lucy gave her a hug, stood there and held her in a way I’ve not seen one of our children hug either of us before. And Maile just kept crying.

The response I got from the 911 operator was sort of along the lines of, “Really? Is that it? We’ll send someone when they’re free.” Which, whatever. Mind your own business, right?

We were all pretty shaky, and we sat in the living room for a long while. The police came – we watched through the windows – and asked some questions and then they left. But whenever I think about this, and I keep going back to it in my mind, I wonder if we did the right thing, if there was some other way. I know beyond any doubt that Maile did the right thing. Stopping that trajectory was important, crucial.

But after I called 911, well, I don’t know. Maybe I’m becoming an official city-dweller, but calling the police felt icky, like being some kind of colossal tattle-tale. And it felt pointless. I wish I could have put aside that pesky adrenaline, that annoying sense of panic, and walked across the street, asked the woman if I could help her get into her apartment, or if there was something I could do about her car being towed away. I wish I would have offered to help. Maybe she wouldn’t have been able to hear me. Maybe she would have screamed at me, too. I don’t know. But next time, that’s what I’ll do.

At the end of all this wondering, I keep hearing what Maile said to that little girl.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

I don’t know why things are the way they are. It doesn’t make any sense.

You can read my wife’s thoughtful response on what she feels she did right and what she could have done better HERE.

9 Replies to “On Seeing a Neighbor Hit Their Child, What Maile Did Right, and What I Would Do Differently”

  1. From someone who has had to work on anger and frustrations issues, it might have been better to approach it from a problem-solving standpoint rather than a “you can’t do that” standpoint. This woman is having her car towed, now she’s locked out of her apartment, who knows what else she’s facing. She’s on the edge, and she doesn’t have the skills to deal with that very well. So she needs some help in that extremely emotional moment to help her come back down and get control of herself. Is there something you could have done to talk the tow guy out of taking her car? Helped her get back into her apartment? Just asked if there was any way to help? I’m absolutely not condoning what she did. In the least. But there might have been a way to de-escalate it. Or not. I don’t know. I’m sorry for the little girl and for Maile. And I pray that the woman is somehow led to a way to develop the skills she needs to control her anger. For herself and her daughter.

  2. So tricky. I’m never sure what to do either, especially when there’s a cultural division. When a refugee family disciplines their children differently than I would, I want to help them understand a better way. But it’s so much more than just, “Don’t do that.” Ugh. I don’t want to be a snitch on my neighbors either, but the kids … man, that breaks my heart. I agree with what the previous commenter said. Sometimes it’s about offering different ways of handling the emotions and parenting skills and self-care. Complicated. I don’t know why things are the way they are either.

  3. You both did exactly the right thing and do not second guess your instincts. The woman was out of control and assaulting a child. That was in public. What do you think she is capable of behind closed doors? Calling the police was your only option – it’s not the wild west. You have no idea what might or could have come next. If you get a humble or quiet apology in a few days, perhaps you helped, but I am not optimistic. The personality type you described is pretty predictable to me. She’s an abuser and will hurt that child or someone else before its all over. I feel sad and helpless.

  4. I once witnessed some rude yelling at a child in a public library that ended with the adult dragging the child in a manner that banged the child into a door frame. I was very distraught by this and notified the library staff. However, I got the feeling that the library staff wouldn’t have done anything except to ask the adult to leave for disrupting other patrons. Of course, there is not much that could be done in this event at the library unless the identity of the adult and/or child was known as they could quickly disappear from the library. In your case, you have a residence where authorities can check in on the situation. No, it is not fun, but I am glad to see your concern and desire to act.

  5. I’m in tears…, when it comes to kids, that is the limit. Weather it was right or wrong, what you did Maile, was what a mama bear would do to protect her cub. It’s what Jesus did for us on the cross. Your mama instinct took over and even though you put yourself in harms way you went to protect the little girl. And for that I have great respect for you and I am so proud of the women you are. James Street needs more like you !

  6. Maile and Shawn – I went through an FBI background check, Social Services inquiry, child abuse training class, offered three references, and had my finger prints taken – all to volunteer with our church Youth Group. PA laws are very clear – if you witness child abuse and do NOT report it, you can be liable, at least if you are volunteering for an organization. I believe you legally, morally, and parentally did all the right things. There are times when “Minding Your Own Business” causes great harm (Penn State abuse) and walking away creates victim after victim. Thank you for being the Champion for the 7 year old neighbor girl and showing your own daughter that Courage and Conviction may not always feel nice, but it is worth it. Well done Servants. Hugs, Maile!!!

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