I am not outside around my house often, but I've been doing a personal project that has put me just outside my front door for at least 50 hours now.

While out there, at least 40% of the time I have heard a neighborhood child screaming and crying. He sounds about 3 or 4 years old. I have yet to hear an adult or another child. Mostly, it doesn't seem like the child is distressed, but it is so often, that I wonder if there is any neglect or abuse going on. The fact that I haven't even heard an adult in all this time is very disturbing to me.

I haven't pinpointed which house, but I know I could rather quickly.

Should I briefly investigate myself to learn more or is this cause enough to report it to the police?

If it matters, I live in the USA.

  • 1
    How long does it seem to last? Does it seem more angry, tired, scared, out of it hard to tell? Some parents go with an "ignore the tantrum" strategy (which could explain the lack of other voices), but there are also other possibilities...
    – Acire
    Commented Aug 16, 2015 at 2:25
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    Instead of thinking calling the police perhaps just go around and ask if things are ok and perhaps say you do not mind babysitting for a bit
    – Ed Heal
    Commented Aug 16, 2015 at 7:46
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    @Erica It seems to be only during the day, lasting for 20 to 40 minutes, occurring frequently. For the most part, it sounds like a tantrum, but each kid is a little different. Yes, ignoring the tantrum is a legitimate strategy, but perhaps the tantrum is occurring because he's being pushed outside without consideration of the child's needs or wishes. Honestly, I'm more annoyed than worried, but we all hear those horrible stories of neglect and abuse, so my imagination runs wild a bit.
    – user10076
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 3:20
  • 3
    I just wanted to add that while it is a scary thought that a child could get taken away from their home and parents when no abuse or neglect was truly happening, let's give some credit to CPS and understand they are not in the business and displacing children. They are in the business or saving children from dangerous situations. I would trust that they know abuse/neglect when they see it and trust them to use the best judgment when deciding to or to not remove a child from a home. Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 12:00
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    @TheSmallestOne: I wouldn't be so sanguine about child protection services. In response to cases where people chose to ignore obvious signs of abuse it seems that the whole area has become tightly regulated to the point where the individuals may feel strong pressure to ignore their own judgement and continue with a case, lest they be accused of negligence. I don't have hard evidence, but I've seen enough credible anecdotes to worry. On the receiving end the parents feel stuck in a Kafka-esque bureaucracy in which all evidence is secret and no defense is permitted. Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 13:56

4 Answers 4


Given 21st century American culture, I'd be very careful either way.

If a child is really being tortured, I certainly wouldn't want to just brush it off with "oh, kids cry and scream sometimes", and allow the abuse to continue.

But on the other hand, children can be taken away from their parents for reasons that, in my humble opinion anyway, range from trivial to totally wrong-headed. I just saw a story in the news the other day about parents being arrested and their child taken away because they got stuck in traffic and didn't get home until the boy had been home from school for half an hour, which time he spent playing basketball in the backyard with no apparent ill effects.

The fact that you don't hear any adult voices could be a positive thing. If there's a screaming child and also a screaming adult, I think that's a worse situation than a screaming child and a calm adult whose voice you can't hear over the child's screaming.

I'd say: get more information before you call the police or children's services. You could be as direct as knocking on the door the next time there's an incident and saying, "Hey, I heard screaming. Is everybody okay? Do you need help?" See what they say and go from there. Or to be a little more subtle, sometime when there's NOT an incident go over and introduce yourself and just say hi. I see in a comment on someone else's answer you say you are pursuing this. Seems like a good strategy to me.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Acire
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 12:28

Let's not beat around the bush...

Do not ignore the situation if you believe there is abuse taking place.

Child Protective Services would be a better place to call than the police if you cannot see a crime being committed or the immediate evidence of one. CPS would rather check 100 families and find everything's ok than miss one child who is being neglected/abused.

There are many reasons for a child crying a lot and most of them aren't abuse. It's always worth getting the situation checked out if you're unsure.

Children often go through a stage where they just wail like they're being murdered because they didn't get their way on-demand and the parent is doing what they should do by not rewarding that behaviour. One of my children had a phase where she got so upset over nothing that she forgot what she was upset about! As a parent situations like that impossible to reason with and you just have to let the storm pass so to speak.

At night, children can suffer from a condition called 'night-terrors' where they appear to wake up (and often wander about the house) but scream the house down. They're actually asleep and any attempt to reason with or console them just makes the screaming worse. They usually go back to bed after a while, finish their good night's sleep and are up with the larks the next day - leaving everyone else groggy and grumpy (and possibly with a black eye) in the morning.

There may be more than one child - Some siblings fight like cat & dog and sometimes when mine argue even I can't tell which one's upset unless I can see them. One always wants what the other has (mine even argue over play-doh - they both seem to want the same colour just because the other has it!?!) and while you tend not to hear the initial disagreement, handling another's toy can sound like the outbreak of WW-III to the untrained observer.

Sometimes the parent is having a hard time coping (post-natal depression can affect anyone and creeps up on you) and Ed's suggestion in the comments to ask if they need a hand is a good one - talk to your neighbours, see if they've noticed the situation too and if the neighbour would be amenable to an offer of help.

  • 7
    Thank you for the answer. I'm pretty sure I've located which of my neighbors it is, and I have met them once. Only the mother and her 5 home-schooled children. There is a father, but I've never met him. She seemed nice and the kids were well-behaved when we met. I think the best approach is perhaps just building up the moxie, and then knock on the door and see what's up and how you can help. I'm always complaining about bad and disconnected neighbors. Perhaps I should set an example and live by my own ideal.
    – user10076
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 3:30
  • You are right though. Inaction allows perpetuation.
    – user10076
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 3:31
  • @fredsbend I would say if they are homeschooled there is extra reason to be a 'a good neighbor' to the kids and consider the CPS or at least getting to know the family. While I don't think families with home schooled children are more prone to abuse, it can mean that very few adults besides immediate family sees the children. (That said, my 2 year old cries as if the world ended when I deny him chocolate (for breakfast. For dinner.) )
    – Ida
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 17:01

Crying is not prima facie evidence of abuse. Often, quite the opposite.

My family might as well be the one you're talking about. My son cries at the drop of a hat. One of the main reasons we homeschool now is because when he was at public school he literally cried for the last hour or two almost every day. However, indulging him so he never cried for long would be more damaging than letting him cry as much as he wants.

One of our major goals for him, which we consider much more important than academic goals, is to teach him socially-acceptable ways to self-regulate his emotional responses, so he will be able to function in a job. He can't do that without at least some practice handling disappointment. It is extremely difficult to find the right balance with him.

His emotional issues are very draining on us as parents, and we lose our tempers more than I'd like to admit. The fact you never hear a parent means she should probably be sainted.

Our oldest daughter has cerebral palsy. She wakes up in severe pain. In order not to be in pain all day, she requires a series of extremely painful stretches. This causes a lot of screaming, but she thanks us afterward.

Our other daughter is typical both emotionally and physically. She rarely cries for long, and it's almost always for reasons that appropriately require our immediate intervention. Sometimes, we try to think what it would be like to be a person who only has experience with kids like her. How would such a person perceive our other children?

Before adding to this mother's burdens, I would suggest getting to know the family better. Yes, there could be neglect or abuse going on, but most likely it's just the ups and downs of a normal family.

  • Thank you for the reply. I'm no stranger to a constantly screaming child. My son screamed and cried constantly for the first 10 months of his life. I wondered then if cops were going to show up at my door.
    – user10076
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 16:53
  • That's sounds really hard. This may not be the appropriate section for this, but in the interest of understanding my own child better, I wonder if your child has been diagnosed with any mental illness, or if it is something he will "grow out of".
    – dgo
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 12:35
  • My son has been diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and depression. They said possibly he will have bipolar disorder when he is older (I guess he is too young to solidly diagnose that one way or the other). He hasn't "grown out of" anything, and isn't likely to, although he is very slowly learning some coping skills. Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 13:26

I am a foster parent, and I can tell you these three things for a fact, from my own experience.

  1. CPS or CPI (Child protective services) are trained to handle, and make these decisions very effectively, usually over the phone. First they take a call, then they decide if it's worth investigating further. About 90% of the time it's not, but they keep a record. If they think it should be investigated they send someone out.
  2. The first resolution is NEVER to take the children. They will often provide services. For example, if they find a kid home alone, they will find ways to help pay for child care. Unless there is extreme neglect or abuse they will offer every bit of help they can to keep the children at home.
  3. If the children have to be "taken" they are usually (I'd say around 95%, but I don't have last years numbers at hand) taken for "Relative placement". A lot of people like to play this up because it sounds more dramatic then it is. But lets say they find that your leaving a 4 year old alone. You refuse to do Day Care, even after they agree to pay part of it. So they "Take" the child. And they "Place" the child with their Grandparents. Again this is a last resort.

If you think abuse is happening then call CPI/CPS. Please. Better to be wrong 100s of times then right once and have done nothing. And as someone who constantly has these people in our home, and is under constant "investigation" (part of being a foster parent), they are not bad people or out to get anyone. They just want to keep the kids safe.

  • All of that said, different states and areas have different setups. So things might be different where you are.
  • Our kids spend so much time screaming and crying, because they often have to adjust to different (or some) rules.
  • Specially young kids tend to wail, as if they were in serious distress, because you told them no, you can't have a candy bar for breakfast.

If I were in your position, I would call it in. Better to be wrong then right.

  • 1
    Thank you for the answer. You seem to be putting down a protocol that cps follows. Can you find a source or two to verify this?
    – user10076
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 15:55
  • It's run at a county or state basis so not without knowing exactly where.
    – coteyr
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 18:42
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    Here's some public info centerforchildwelfare.fmhi.usf.edu/faqs/NewFAQ.shtml
    – coteyr
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 19:26
  • Great answer, I don't know why this doesn't have more upvotes. I know CPS workers, they work under the philosophy that children are better off with their parents. They would prefer to educate the parents rather then remove the children from the home.
    – Bronco
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 17:08

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