Witness Abuse: What Would You Do?

What do you do when faced with a difficult decision?

Would you react differently if you knew someone was watching?

What if your dinner out was ruined by kids running wild and out of control while an oblivious parent ignored the chaos?

Would you say something, or stew in silence?

Would you approach an obnoxious person talking loudly on his cell phone?

Here is a scene no one would expect to encounter in a suburban park on a hot summer afternoon.

As strollers, joggers, and people on bicycles pass by, it appears that a frail, elderly man in a wheelchair is verbally and physically abused by his uniformed caregiver, a young man in his 20s.

Will anyone stop and help? Would you?

The caregiver berates the man mercilessly.

"Are you going to read the paper, or are you going to sit there and babble like an idiot," he asks.

The elderly man says, "I want to go home," to which the caregiver responds, "Well, you're not going home! How's that?!"

Will Anyone Respond?

Despite the apparent abuse, one person after another who encountered the troubling scene kept right on going. Finally, a man, riding bikes with his two young children, stops less than 10 feet from the surly caregiver.

"Don't hit him," he says with a look that means business. "If I hear any more, I'm calling the police. I'll tell you that right now."

Moments later, about 50 yards down the bike path, the man borrows a cell phone from a young mom pushing a stroller. He calls 911 to report the abuse.

But the man is in no real danger.

What Would You Do?

The elderly man isn't in any danger. Both he and his caregiver are actors, hired by "Primetime," for a special hidden-camera experiment.

The 911 dispatchers were also informed of our experiment, but we wanted to see how people would react when they encountered a case of elder abuse. Would they keep walking by? Would they call 911? Or would they step up and confront the abuser?

Over the course of two days, "Primetime" observed 100 people walk past our abusive caregiver and the elderly man. Only 25 intervened in some way.

"My first instinct was to ride by and not do anything," said Ron Nagle, the dad who called 911. "But I have two kids, and I didn't think it was a good example to the kids to just do nothing."

Unfortunately, Nagle is the exception.

According to statistics released by the National Center on Elder Abuse, only one in 14 cases of abuse are reported to authorities.

Excuses, Excuses

Over the two days that "Primetime" spent in the park, those who didn't get involved offered up myriad reasons:

"I just wasn't sure if it was my place," one woman said.

Another woman said, "I wish I could have done something, but I felt helpless. He was intimidating."

An older man riding by on a bicycle was reluctant to approach because the caregiver seemed angry. "The guy's a lot bigger and a lot younger than me, and he was pretty hot-tempered," he said.

A Growing Problem

Reports of elder abuse in the United States are growing significantly, up almost 20 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to the National Center for Elder Abuse.

The same organization estimates that anywhere between 1 million and 2 million Americans older than the age of 65 "have been injured, exploited or otherwise mistreated by someone on whom they depended for care."

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