My stepfather sexually abused me as a child. It keeps depressing me but my Mom doesn't know and I don't want him arrested. What can I do?
February 14, 2005 8:40 AM   Subscribe

As a kid, at age 16, I was sexually abused. This continued until I was 18, and went to college. The guy is my stepfather, and I still run into him when I visit my mom, but we dont talk about it. I've been having bouts of reoccuring depression, and this is playing a large role. I think it's interfering with my schoolwork, however it comes and goes. When I feel ok, I hardly think about it anymore. I was thinking about using the university's free student counselling, but I dont want this guy arrested, because my mom doesnt know, and I dont want her to. I cant afford therapy that's not free. What should/can I do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total)
Your counselor will have an obligation to maintain the confidentiality of what you tell them. There are circumstances in which they can break confidentiality, but they're pretty limited, and generally only if they suspect a crime is going to be committed - like if they suspect the abuse is continuing. Whoever is responsible for the counseling is likely bound by a code of ethics, the one for US Psychologists is available on the APA website. Ask them before you begin counseling to explain the limits of confidentiality and what it might mean to you.

They might, however, bring you to a mental place where you no longer feel that protecting your mother from knowing what her husband is like is worth it. In which case, you might find that you do change your mind about whether you're willing to see him arrested.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:55 AM on February 14, 2005

The student service might be a viable option for you. the best thing is to check it out. Ask some of these same questions you are asking here. I do not think there would be any risk of your stepfather being arrested from using this service. Especially since the abuse is not currently happening. And as an adult you have final say on what they can and can not divulge to most third parties (including your parents)

Guess the long and short of it is, find out if you are comfortable using the service, (many people go through many therapists before finding the right one, it can be an intense relationship).

The home situation sounds pretty sticky, my guess is that at some point your mom will know, or refuse to know depending on... well many things. There is a lot of stuff that could be said about confrontation, liberation etc, etc, but at this point it is not appropriate to talk about those issues.

I hope things go well, good luck.
posted by edgeways at 8:56 AM on February 14, 2005

If the person you speak with at your university's free student counselling service is a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist, then your discussions with them would most likely be protected by the psychologist-client privilege. I would suggest that if your primary concern is that your stepfather not be arrested for his actions, that you go to your university's counseling service and ask them: (1) if the person is a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist, (2) if your conversations with them are protected by the therapist-patient privilege; and (3) under what circumstances they must report your discussions. In most situations, you should be able to discuss your stepfather's abuse without him being at risk for arrest. Even if your school's free student counseling doesn't match the above conditions, I imagine that you could find therapy resources offered by your city or state geared towards survivors of abuse that are free, even if they are support groups and not one-on-one. If you post another Ask MeFi question with your city and state, I'm sure fellow MeFi-ers would be willing to help you locate same. On another note, I would very respectfully suggest that if your mother knew what your stepfather had done to you, she would not want to live with him, and would want to see him behind bars, but that is easy for me to say, since I'm only looking at the situation intellectually and not from personal experience.
posted by WCityMike at 8:57 AM on February 14, 2005

I am unsure as to why you wouldn't want your mother to know. Are you comfortable with the fact that she is still with this creep?
posted by agregoli at 9:01 AM on February 14, 2005

Your counselor will have an obligation to maintain the confidentiality of what you tell them.

This, however, conflicts with the liability that any professional assumes if the person molests anyone else. Some states have laws on the books that say anyone who knows about abuse of a minor and does not report it is guilty of a crime or otherwise liable... and in some cases, even the mere suspicion of abuse is enough to incur liability.

I would try to talk to the counselor anonymously if possible, and even then not give the full details until you know what they are and are not required to report.

All that being said, I think it is a bad idea *not* to report the guy. Without commenting on the morality of action or inaction on your part, on a practical level, failure to make authorities aware may be enabling him to seek out other victims.
posted by Doohickie at 9:02 AM on February 14, 2005

The laws on exceptions to confidentiality are mostly state based, so try contacting your state or province's licensing board. You can find a list here.
posted by insideout at 9:03 AM on February 14, 2005

I would also suggest that the university service is a good first option. Often your first meeting at this type of center is to determine which type of therapist or psychologist or psychiatrist would be most beneficial for you to see. At that first meeting, ask the questions that have been carefully outlined by the previous posters, and the person doing the interview will guide you towards the appropriate member of their staff. They usually have many different staff members with different perspectives, treatment options, and specialties. So, if the first one doesn't work out for any reason, you won't have to go very far to find another; he or she will be in the same office. You've already taken the first step in your healing process.
posted by fionab at 9:08 AM on February 14, 2005

Also, if you sought out cognitive therapy for your depression, you might not even have to talk about past events--cognitive therapy is based more on dealing with how you process information and feelings in the present, than it is on digging up the past. You may or may not want to talk about the abuse eventually, but a short course of cognitive therapy might help you manage the depression for now.

Remember, you don't have to tell your therapist anything you don't want to tell him.
posted by insideout at 9:09 AM on February 14, 2005

Your mother is living with a sexual predator who may be abusing other minors and you don't want to tell anyone? I know this isn't an answer to your question but why?!
posted by glenwood at 9:14 AM on February 14, 2005

Making damn sure this guy never molests anyone ever again trumps any other priority, including your mother's feelings.
posted by GeekAnimator at 9:17 AM on February 14, 2005

There have been a lot of responses here so far that say, "Report him, damn it, and do it now!" Or words to that effect, but using that tone. Listen, I understand the instinct to give this guy (or girl) that advice, but reporting the stepfather to the police can take an incredible act of emotional strength on the victim's part.

This individual is trying to enter therapy. While meaning no disrespect, I strongly suggest to other MeFi-ers that the advice be more strongly focused on answering their therapy questions than on urging reporting.

Hopefully, at some future point, the anonymous submitter will feel strongly enough to, with their therapist's assistance, report this guy and have him jailed. I sincerely hope that will happen.

This person's already been subject to some nasty abuse. Again, with all due respect, let's make sure tthe "Gentle" knob is cranked up to 10 when responding, 'kay?
posted by WCityMike at 9:22 AM on February 14, 2005

It took years for someone in my family to tell my mom what my father was doing to them, and by the time she told my mom he was already dead. It really hurt for a while, but i'm glad she was able to get it out. Sticky, sticky situation.

You don't have to do anything you don't want to. The free counseling at college is a good idea, I would consider it.
posted by Dean Keaton at 9:30 AM on February 14, 2005

When I was in college, I sought counselling because my then-ex boyfriend assaulted me and it completely screwed with my head. From my experience, two things: our "Health Educator" was a counsellor, but not a psychologist. I chose to talk to her because she was down-to-earth and exhibited the ability to talk to people without being all "Riddle me this" the way some psychologists/psychiatrists are. I really preferred her to the actual psychiatrists, and I had great results coping with my problems with her help. What I'm trying to say is that it's okay if you don't like or can't talk very well to the therapist you end up with. There are probably a lot of them there (my college had about 1600 people and we had three psychiatrists and the one counsellor) and you shouldn't worry about finding one that works for you. Your ability to get this worked out for yourself is more important than their personal/professional vanity, and they will know and understand this. Good luck.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:33 AM on February 14, 2005

I agree with WCityMike, and only want to add that reporting/calling out the stepfather could achieve... nothing, and in fact be seriously emotionally damaging to the poster at this time, especially if doing so without a very strong support system.

The legalities in proving past sexual abuse are difficult, it would be very hard to convict someone on personal testimony alone, this is one reason why I feel the stepfather would not be reported, or arrested by a counselor.

I... have some experience in this field, as someone very close to me went through something similar, only over a much longer period of time and at an earlier age. Everyone in the concerned family knows, many in the community as well, but the fellow has never been arrested, much less convicted. The issues surrounding this topic are so complex and intense that simple administrations do more harm then good.

The best thing at this point is for annon to seek help with what troubles h/im/er

It is emotionally gratifying to say things like report him, shoot him, or whatever but that is not the subject at hand, please think them, please, if you are concerned about this issue find someway to make a difference where you live, and please keep to the topic ay hand.
posted by edgeways at 9:42 AM on February 14, 2005

This sounds very recent given the ages you say this started happening and ended and that you're now in college.

There should be some free therapy options available to you, support groups of people who've been unfortunate enough to go through the same experience. Don't hold it in, don't bottle it up because it won't go away and can mess you up permanently. Having other people to help you deal with this can, hopefully, help you work beyond it. Good luck!

I will also hope that, once you are strong enough, you will "out" this scumbag and get him away from your mother. If he did this to you, its not much of a stretch to imagine that he's got other thoroughly reprehensible traits.
posted by fenriq at 9:49 AM on February 14, 2005

In California at least, health care professionals have an obligation to report if they have a suspicion of child abuse. This law was put in place to protect other children from being abused. Think about it - your stepfather may, even now, be abusing other minors who trust him. How likely is it that this person will stop his abuse with you?

This is a big deal, I understand - breaking the veil of silence that surrounds sexual abuse is a *huge* thing. It's very likely that there's a connection between your mood problems and your prior abuse. If you go for therapy, and you are able to do some serious work on the issue, in addition to protecting others, you will be lifting a huge burden off your shoulders. Do you really want to sacrifice your own mental health to protect an abuser's secret?
posted by jasper411 at 9:55 AM on February 14, 2005

In California at least, health care professionals have an obligation to report if they have a suspicion of child abuse

posted by jasper411 at 9:55 AM PST on February 14

There seems to be a misconception in this thread that *past* abuse of someone who is now an adult may obligate reporting--I doubt this is true. Only if the adult person reported that a minor was currently being abused would reporting obligations kick in. Again, check your state's current laws.

From one California county's website interpreting CA law:

-Past Abuse of a child who is an adult at the time of disclosure.

There is no duty to report child abuse unless the victim is a child, meaning a person under the age of 18 years. Accordingly, past abuse of a child who is an adult at the time of disclosure or discovery of the abuse need not be reported. However, if a mandated reporter has a reasonable suspicion due to the conversation with this adult that someone still under the age of 18 has been abused, it must be reported.

posted by insideout at 10:18 AM on February 14, 2005

In looking back at my post, let me make clear that the first priority is for the poster to get into some kind of counseling. I think it is important that this guy doesn't find any more victims, but first and foremost is treating the already-existing problems. In my post, I was just trying to throw some aspects out there that the poster would want to think about. If I came off as heavy-handed, though, I apologize.
posted by Doohickie at 10:28 AM on February 14, 2005

insideout, it's a good point, and technically true. In my experience, the way the laws are written is to strongly encourage reporting (i.e., the threshold for reporting is reasonable suspicion and there is no liability for reporting unless it was done in bad faith). The way the duty to report is taught in ethics/risk management courses also is in the direction of encouraging reporting, if in doubt.

One thing that might happen is that the therapist might call the child protective authorities anonymously and ask if they thought a report was required in this instance. This call can be made by anybody, BTW. The issue would probably hinge on how likely it is that the alleged perpetrator might have access to other young people, as it is thought that abusers do not tend to limit their abuse to one person. I'm not sure what the evidence is for that position, but it seems reasonable that people who abuse their power over a minor repeatedly over the course of years will continue to find ways to do so.

There have been instances of successful lawsuits against therapists who failed to report, and these kinds of stories have a big impact on therapists as they think about whether they should report or not. BTW, reporting doesn't mean the cops swoop down on the alleged perp. They initiate an investigation based on their judgement of the urgency of the situation.

A good therapist will not just report and then wash his or her hands of the affair. Rather, a therapist should know that going public with an allegation of abuse is a huge event in the life of a client. Hopefully the therapist should make all efforts to stand by their client and support them in their movement out of the place of having been abused.

I guess my main hope would be that anonymous should get all the help and support he/she possibly can, and not get distracted from that goal by anxiety about the outcomes of an abuse report. Try to not let concerns about protecting secrets get in the way of getting help.
posted by jasper411 at 10:47 AM on February 14, 2005

jasper- Well said.
posted by Doohickie at 10:51 AM on February 14, 2005

You need counseling, but you say it must be free? Well then the question becomes where to get it. To my knowledge, the few people I have know who need serious professional help and couldn't afford it were able to get by being a member of a church. I know of three different people who had professional counseling paid for by churches. So, I would talk to a priest/minister and see if the church has any outreach things that can help you. They may help set up free counseling to help you (and I am speaking about professional counseling; not preacher counseling).
posted by dios at 11:37 AM on February 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

In New York State, as an example, the law's quite clear: any provider who even suspects that child abuse may have been committed is legally obligated to make a full report to Child Protective Services. Not doing so is grounds for license revocation or worse.

However, therapists aren't monsters. First find out if the person you're talking to is a licensed professional. If not, they're in over their head with you and you should find someone who is licensed. You need and deserve high quality, professional help. I'm sure you're a wonderful person, you're not at fault here, and let me say again, you need and deserve the best help for your problems! I am positive that these issues are troubling you greatly and that there is help out there for you.

When you speak to a professional, start by being hypothetical. "Let's say that someone had abused me when I was 16. If I told you about this, who would have to find out? What would happen then?" If you don't like the answer, explain to the therapist exactly why and let her work with you to get to a place where you're both comfortable with what's going to be said and what's going to happen. I promise you that this can be done.

If you have more questions, feel free to send me an electronic letter - it's my metafilter username, at livejournal dot com.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:06 PM on February 14, 2005

I don't know the issues surrounding reporting abuse but I can relate to looking for inexpensive therapy. When I was younger I needed therapy but was completely broke. Luckily my state (Maryland) has a mental health fund in place for people like me who need help but can't afford it. I was referred to a very nice therapist and only had to pay two dollars per session and if I couldn't afford that then I wouldn't have to pay it. If you feel uncomfortable with the student counselor and want to try a different therapist you should check with your state to see if they have a similar program.
posted by LeeJay at 12:09 PM on February 14, 2005

Know that you're not alone - this happens much more frequently than anyone talks about, and as a former resident counselor at my college, I can tell you that the first year or two of college is precisely when this comes up for a lot of people, as it's the first time out of the house at some distance from the abuse.

Do you have a resident counselor/dorm advisor who you like? Often, they are trained in helping people find available resources at the school and in the community. Some colleges also have sexual assault survivor support groups. Your health center would have details on this. Some schools also have womens' centers that have details on these things. It's sadly a common enough problem that there are generally support structures in place. You're not the first person to be struggling with this.

There's also an excellent resource book called "The Courage to Heal" - I don't know how current it is but it's very detailed and informative and may be a good place for you to start. You'll figure out in your own time if you want to tell your mom or report the abuser - there's no rush. Just remember that it was *their* obligation to protect you, which they failed, not your obligation to protect them.

Good luck.
posted by judith at 1:10 PM on February 14, 2005

I'd second that you should turn him in. But if that isn't what you want to do, I don't see any reason why he shouldn't be paying for your therapy. Make sure he knows he isn't buying your silence just that you and he both know that he is responsible for you needing to see someone about this. Make a budget, I don't know 400 - 500 a month, present him with it, give him receipts. If setting this up would be too much interaction with him, I'd understand. Just a suggestion.

Good luck with this.
posted by pwb503 at 8:08 PM on February 14, 2005

One thing that may help is summer school or a summer job (away from home), where you don't have to run into him. Maybe you can give yourself permission not to have to visit/live with your family for a while. This may give you time to heal yourself before you have to "face" him.

Your mom may be hurt, but if you always talk about how you like school, or this summer job is a great opportunity, then you're less likely to get a guilt trip.

If you were to go study abroad for a year, then your family wouldn't be able to expect you to visit often, now could they?

Maybe you could transfer to a school farther away (I don't know how far away you are now, but if it is just a few hours drive, then it is harder to come up with excuses). I live 1700 miles away from my parents, and I only see them once a year. If I were to have "wonderful opportunities" to come up, then I could get out of that as well.

Do you have any friends? Try to get more. Get involved in activities. If you are good at school, see how high you can get your GPA to be. If you are sitting around too much, then that is more time for you to become depressed.

When you walk around campus, what do you tell yourself? Don't tell yourself that you are depressed. Say that you are good at what you do and that people like you. It may be hard at first, but pretend. You are what you pretend to be.

What I like about college is that you get a mini-start every few months. New classes, new teachers, new people. Decide what you want to change about yourself, and try it out. Don't like it? It is only for four months.

I am not saying you should avoid this, I am saying that you should be a bit selfish right now. Don't worry about what to do with him or your mom. You first.

Then once you are ready, you can decide what to do (if anything).
posted by Monday at 10:20 PM on February 14, 2005

To my knowledge, the few people I have know who need serious professional help and couldn't afford it were able to get by being a member of a church.

Excellent idea! But you don't even have to be a church member necessarily. I know of pastors in several churches that have fairly advanced training in counseling and are smart enough to know that it's time to recommend you to a different counselor. I would talk to ministers at mainline denominations such as Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, etc.
posted by Doohickie at 10:41 AM on February 15, 2005

I think it's interfering with my schoolwork, however it comes and goes.

In that case, definitely get in touch with your university's counselling department. Even if you decide to seek therapy elsewhere, they need to be aware of this in case things become overwhelming and you need to defer exams/assignments/essays. They are there to help you, and there is no shame in asking for extra time because you're dealing with things. That's a large part of what university is about -- deciding how to deal with things on your own terms. If you ever find yourself in a rough spot when it comes to having an exam and simultaneously having a breakdown, your counselling dept will likely be the ones to go to bat for you, make sure you use that resource. Your stepfather has already made you suffer enough, don't let him make your marks suffer too.
posted by heatherann at 4:17 PM on February 15, 2005

Most of the key points have been covered already.

* If there is evidence that he is actively abusing others, he should be reported sooner rather than later.

* The law is going to vary from state to state on whether the counselor is required to report abuse that occurred in the past.

* For you, your number one priority is to deal with this in a constructive fashion. Generally, that means counseling.

* You need to deal with this personally before you make up your mind about confronting him and/or telling your mother.

* Start with the school counseling services and consider contacting some churches if that doesn't work. Bring up all your concerns up front before you commit to regular sessions with a particular counselor.

* Remember that this is not your fault. You are not alone in this. There are many others out there and many people who want to help you.
posted by kreinsch at 6:18 PM on February 15, 2005

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