Had Madelyne Gorman Toogood not been caught on videotape beating her 4-year-old daughter, no one would have been the wiser that such a dastardly act had taken place. That's because in the United States, while more than 3.2 million cases of child abuse and neglect are reported to authorities each year, police and child-welfare advocates contend most abuse goes unreported.
Indeed, had Toogood's behavior been witnessed by individuals rather than a video camera, chances are she would have got away with the beating. Why?
"There's still a tremendous amount of hesitancy to report, of not wanting to get involved," said Detective Howard Black, who heads a domestic violence response team with the Colorado Springs, Colo., police department. Black spoke to the Associated Press after the Toogood case became national news. "It's a complicated area. But whenever folks are in doubt, we strongly encourage them to call the police or Child Protective Services, and to err on the side of the safety of children."
Children are defenseless against such violence, which is why public vigilance is demanded.
No one watching the videotape of 4-year-old Martha being pounced on by her mother can feel anything but contempt for the woman.
"I just lost my temper," Toogood said of the Sept. 13 incident in a department store parking lot in Mishawaka, Ind. She told reporters she got angry because she was having a bad day. Her lawyer suggested that Martha had misbehaved in the store. The 25-year-old accused admits that she hit her daughter in the head and back and pulled her hair, but denies punching her. In the video, Toogood appears to be making punching motions toward her daughter, who is mostly hidden within Toogood's car.
After the video was aired nationally, the mother surrendered to Mishawaka police on Saturday. She was arraigned on Monday on a felony charge of battery to a child, and a magistrate entered an innocent plea on her behalf. If convicted she could get up to three years in prison. A hearing on the case has been scheduled for Oct. 7.
However, her lawyer said she would probably plead guilty and throw herself at the mercy of the court. Mercy isn't a word that comes to mind as far as this woman is concerned. The court, the prosecutor and officials of the children services agency have a responsibility to determine whether this was an isolated incident. They should also delve into the family's home life.
According to news reports, Toogood said she and her husband are Irish Travelers -- a nomadic group from Ireland related to Roma of the European continent, a group known as Gypsies. Police say Irish Travelers have been linked to fraudulent home repair.
The little girl has been placed in foster care and the probate court judge gave child-protection officials two weeks to recommend who should care for her.
It is not enough for Toogood to say that she and her husband are ready to be reunited with their daughter and two sons -- they are staying with family -- and are willing to take parenting classes.
Before the children are returned to their parents, the authorities had better make sure that they aren't being placed in an environment that puts them in harm's way.