Worried about my little sisters
April 26, 2012 6:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm worried that my little sisters may be in an abusive situation, but don't know what's really going on or where I should go from here.

I'm visiting my sisters right now. I didn't grow up with them (we have different mothers) but I did spend summers visiting them and my dad. Those summers were stressful because my dad and his wife had nasty fights, and that house just felt like a horrible place to be. But I loved my little sisters so I kept in touch, even when my dad divorced their mom.
I'm visiting them now (staying at a friends place and taking them on outings), and I'm so, so worried about them. About a year ago their mom had a breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric ward for a good few months. I don't know much about the whole situation or what her specific diagnosis is, but I do know that she had lost it, and that she was released on the condition that another adult be living with her and the children.
So she had just started dating this guy, and he moved in. I felt a lot of mistrust towards him, wondering who this guy was who was willing to move in with his recent girlfriend because she had just lost it and couldn't be alone with her children.
Anyways, he does give off an eerie, kind of creepy vibe. He acts extremely friendly, though, almost too much. The kids hate him.
The oldest child ran away from home a couple weeks ago. She's 17. She's kind of out of control, was getting suspended for fighting and telling off teachers, does a lot of drugs and parties and is tough as nails.
The younger one is 12, always been shy and sweet, but is recently angry and wants to move out and go live with our dad because she hates her mom and her mom's boyfriend so much.
When I ask them about their home situation they don't usually mention anything specific, they will say they hate their mom and her boyfriend but won't really go into details.If I ask them what their mom's boyfriend is like they just say he's nice or dumb. But today when I was dropping the 12 year old off, she got in a really bad mood. She got mad at her mom over some things, and started storming around and kind of screaming. She said that she hated the mom's boyfriend, and had hated him ever since he had pinned her down to the bed so that she couldn't move. Her mom said that that wasn't how it happened, that she wasn't pinned to the bed, and my sister said that the mom wasn't in her body so she didn't know that she couldn't get up. I really didn't like how the mom was dismissing what happened.
Anyways so then I go pick the 17 year old up, and ask her about the time the boyfriend pinned the 12yr old to the bed, and if he ever had hurt her (17rd old) in any way. She said that he had once grabbed her arm and raised his fist at her, but that she had told him that if he touched her she would knock him to pieces. I asked her if he had ever done anything else to her or her younger sister, and she wouldn't really answer definitively, just kinda of kept mumbling 'i don't know' and dismissing my question.
I feel like those two things alone are enough to report, but I'm so scared of making things worse for either of them than they already are. They are both kind of out of control, dramatic teenage girls, and so I think most people are inclined to think that they just are upset by rules and fighting with their mom. I know the mom alone was stressful enough to make the eldest (now 22) run away at the age of 16. I want to try to talk to them and figure out what's going on and how I can best help them, I just don't know how to get them to talk to me. They love me, I've tried to be a really stable, loving, trustworthy presence throughout their lives, but I don't know where to go from here with this whole situation.
I'm leaving in a few days and don't want to go feeling like I've failed to recognize and stop child abuse, but I also don't know how much I'm reading into things, or how to get them to open up to me if anything is going on, or what to do about anything. Some objective, outsider insight would be much appreciated.
posted by whalebreath to Human Relations (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Check out this website and then call the relevant number. I believe you have sufficient cause to report (particularly given the way both minor children are behaving,) but the website may help you understand why.

Please do remember they have a place they can go, which is (presumably) safer and saner than the one they're in now. Also, your second-youngest sibling needs immediate intervention if she's being violent, taking risks, and abusing narcotics.
posted by SMPA at 6:48 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also: you are the Older Sister, and not necessarily someone they're going to want to share stuff with. I suggest you pass on this site (they have a phone number and online chat, so they can reach them even if they're not in the US) to both girls. The oldest one might also find some of it helpful: this kind of stress doesn't go away when you turn 18, even if you've moved out long before.
posted by SMPA at 6:54 PM on April 26, 2012

but I also don't know how much I'm reading into things

The "boyfriend," a middle-aged male, pinned a 12 year old girl on a BED??? I didn't even need to read past that. What was he, on top of her? I don't think you're reading anything into anything. Between that and the fist raising in the other girl's face, there is not a question here that he's abusing these girls. Both of those acts are abusive in and of themselves even if he wasn't taking it further.

I also don't know ... how to get them to open up to me if anything is going on, or what to do about anything.

Other people will give you really good advice on what to do about the situation. But as far as getting them to open up to you, I would start with some combination of the following. Not to get them to open up right then and there but hopefully lay the foundation for them being comfortable with it.

- No matter what you ever tell me in life, I will always believe you. I do not care what anyone else says. I do not care about anyone else's side of the story. I am always going to believe YOU.

- If you are ever harmed by an adult, I am never going to blame YOU for that. I don't care what you did. I don't care about anyone's arguments for why you deserved it, or provoked it. I am never going to blame YOU. I am not going to judge you.

- I welcome contact from you at any time of the day or night. No time is a bad time. No hour is too late. Call me when you need me. Or email me, or text.

- I love you and would do anything for you and you will never be an inconvenience or a trouble to me. If you need help, just ask. I will do anything within my power to help you.

- If you need help with anything, I am not going to push my solutions on you if you don't agree with them. First I will listen to you and understand everything. Then we will come to a solution together that we are both happy with.
posted by cairdeas at 7:09 PM on April 26, 2012 [114 favorites]

Can I favorite a person? cairdeas has wonderful, spot on advice.
posted by Night_owl at 7:14 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've worked as part of a multi-disciplinary team that investigates child abuse. What you've written right here is sufficient for a report. You don't have to burden yourself, at all, with understanding the situation, getting your sisters to disclose, or making the call regarding whether or not their situation is abusive.

Calling and asking for help does not mean you have labeled this situation as abusive, it means you are concerned and need a professional to figure out what intervention is needed (education, resources, safety plans, services, etc.). You are right that third party and objective help is needed, but it is your sister's living situation that requires it, not your own judgement.

All you need to do is call Child Protective Services in your sister's city or county and tell them that you are concerned that your sisters require help and that the younger disclosed physical abuse. Your call will initiate their services which range from education to investigation.

I often see friends or family of children hesitate to ask for help because they believe that they have to know or have some proof of what the problem is before they can reach out and that they have some burden of proof before they make these calls. The fact is, those burdens are carried by professionals, and all you need to make a call is concern.

Make the call. The best thing you can do for your sisters, in the moment, is be patient and loving and appropriate. In fact, it isn't even necessary, and may be counterproductive, to attempt to encourage them to talk or disclose about any incidents, especially when others as a part of a professional team will work with them on disclosure, later.

My thoughts are with you and your sisters.
posted by rumposinc at 7:15 PM on April 26, 2012 [30 favorites]

"I also don't know how much I'm reading into things"

This is why you should call Child Services -- they are the experts on this, so you don't have to be. When you call and make your report, you are reporting a suspicion of child abuse, not that you know for sure that it's happening. I think a lot of people are hesitant to report in case they're wrong, but Child Services starts with investigation and moves forward from there.

And it may well be that there's no abuse and the mom just needs more supportive services to be a better parent to your sisters, and if that's the case, Child Services can help her get those supportive services.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:16 PM on April 26, 2012

Yes, please report locally. I'm someone who is a mandated reporter in my state and everything you mention here is something that would prompt me to contact the local authorities. Please do make the call. The local authorities will sort out if it's abuse, but will also put the family in contact with resources they need to work through whatever is going on. You are doing the right and loving thing for these girls.
posted by goggie at 7:22 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

My older half-sister didn't protect me from abuse (at the hands of her then-boyfriend) and I will never forgive her for that. It's been nineteen years since I last spoke to her.
posted by Ruki at 7:22 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm totally on board with calling cps I just feel so worried that I'll make things worse. I don't think the mom wants help being a better parent (when one of the kids was 16, she was seeing a therapist who was helping. The therapist asked to speak with the mom one day, an after ten minutes the mom stormed out and refused to take my sister back to that therapist). Plus, they would highly suspect it was me that reported, and when I've interfered in the past (offered the oldest one to come live with me because the hospital wouldnt release her unless she had somewhere to go, and she refused to come home) then the mom really kind of cut me out of their lives and resented me. I'm also scared of making things more horrible and stressful for the 12yr old at home if CPA finds/does nothing.
posted by whalebreath at 7:38 PM on April 26, 2012

I think you have enough basic evidence (explosions of anger, threats of violence, a non-related adult male pinning a 12 year old to a bed) to instigate a third party analysing the situation. As someone that grew up in a similarly unpleasant environment (no direct sexual abuse, but lots of violence and emotional abuse) with no adult intervention to help me and my brother out, I would HIGHLY recommend you get a social worker's advice. No one else has to know that you're seeking this advice, and if it goes no further, then so be it. But from personal experience: don't let those kids twist in the wind. Every suspicion should be addressed face on. The consequences of an abusive household can/will last them a lifetime.
posted by saturnine at 7:44 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Does your Dad have any contact with them? It seems like he should be in the loop on this.

I back up what has been said-I am a mandated reporter in my work and I would call CPS in a minute over the younger daughters allegations.

The fact is you don't know the outcome if you do not call protective services, but you do know the outcome will be worse if you do nothing. It's a hard thing to do, but it really appears you are the onlyreal adult involved.

My heart is open to you and your sisters.
posted by Isadorady at 7:49 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you DO call protective services
posted by Isadorady at 7:51 PM on April 26, 2012

I asked her if he had ever done anything else to her or her younger sister, and she wouldn't really answer definitively, just kinda of kept mumbling 'i don't know' and dismissing my question.

This is actually the thing that raises the biggest flag for me. Nthing that you should report, or at the very least seek advice from a social worker familiar with the process, if at all possible.
posted by rtha at 7:51 PM on April 26, 2012 [10 favorites]

If abuse - especially sexual abuse - is happening and you don't report, then there are some pretty terrible costs for that.

If abuse isn't happening, and you report, there could be some costs for that as well, but not so terrible as incestuous rape or beatings.

I think that making a report is probably the best course of action for all involved.
posted by kavasa at 9:42 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

A few additional thoughts occur to me about why your sisters might have been cagey when you asked if the boyfriend had done anything else to them.

-The boyfriend may have made threats towards them that he would harm them or their mother (or pets or possessions etc.) if they told anyone about particular things he did.

-Or, the mother might threaten to harm them or threaten self harm if they tell. Or she may just threaten things like, "if you tell anyone you'll be taken away and sent off to a foster home with strangers, where you'll be beaten every night."

-The boyfriend may be blackmailing them in some way. Maybe they have gone along with something he did or he knows something about them and he is holding that over them.

I would try to address these also just in case. Some example wording could be:

If anyone ever harms you and threatens you to keep silent about it, I will listen to you and do my best to completely understand the danger you are in, and help you out of it. I want you to tell me what it would take for you to feel safe from their threats. I will not push you into any situations that will expose you to danger.

For the blackmailing (this is kind of redundant to one of the things I said above) --

Most adults have done things in the past that we regret. Sometimes they are things we are very ashamed about, or fear others would judge or punish us for. Sometimes they are things that could have scary consequences if anyone were to find out about them. And sometimes people who are not our friends find out about these things and try to use them to have power over us and blackmail us. I need to tell you that I want to know if anyone is blackmailing you for any reason. If this ever happens to you, you don't even have to tell me what you did that they are blackmailing you about. I promise that I will never judge you no matter what it is.

One other thought is they, like you and many other people, may be feeling unsure if this is really abuse. And if it's really the right thing to speak up and trigger many consequences over something that's "not a big deal."

So I think you should let them know it is important for them to listen to their guts. That sometimes there is something that bothers us on a deep gut level, but it seems kind of silly or we can't really put it into words what is bothering us. And if we told anyone else they wouldn't understand, or they would say we were making a big deal out of nothing. But the feeling is still there, and when it's there we should not ignore it.
posted by cairdeas at 9:51 PM on April 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

There are huge warning signs, and I would definitely call your child protective services. Note that you may have to go through some hassle with reporting, and it's possible that the girls will deny any abuse happening. Cairdeas has great advice. Their mother will quite probably hate you if she figures out you reported her, but this is a woman who is downplaying and ignoring her children's discomfort in favour of a recent boyfriend.

If it helps, I grew up in an abusive household and kept my mouth shut for years because the very few times I said anything, I got dismissed as "that can't be happening" so I doubted myself or because I just assumed everyone's family was that bad, they just hid it too. If someone had asked me, especially a family relation, I would have felt guilt-bound to deny and cover-up even though I was getting victimized. Kids try to protect their parents against outsiders.

But it would have meant the world to me to have that family relation keep asking gently and supportively and to have listened. Cairdeas' advice - you can't fix their lives, but you will make such a difference in helping them if you can do that. Thank you for trying.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:37 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.

-Martin Luther King Jr.
posted by corn_bread at 11:21 AM on April 27, 2012

I keep thinking about this thread. I just want to also say, I think it is really important to affirm to them that even if the boyfriend hasn't done anything else to them that they haven't told you about, the things he's done that they have ALREADY told you about are unacceptable. They are wrong, they are abusive, and your sisters should not have to live with them in their environment. 12 year olds should not have to worry, in their own home, that at any moment they might get pinned underneath an adult male on a bed. It's horrifying. 17 year olds should not have to worry, in their own home, that they will get adult male fists waved in their face. Just make sure you're not giving them a vibe of, okay, he did those things, but they're not *quite* a Big Deal, he would have to do something worse than that for it to be a big deal, for anyone to step in.. these are things you just kind of have to accept and live with. No, they are a big deal, a huge deal.
posted by cairdeas at 2:54 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

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