Dear Prudence advises a teacher reluctant to report abuse for fear of fracturing a family—during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.
Photograph by Teresa Castracane.
Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone—'tis the Monday before Christmas, so I hope all of you are ready.
Q. A Teacher's Problem: I work as a high-school teacher, and I love my job. A couple of weeks ago a student, "James," came to school with bruises on his face. I didn't want to jump to conclusions, so I had a quiet word with him after school. He is one of the students in my class I've established a good rapport with and from time to time he comes for advice about his schoolwork and personal life. He told me his dad has been incredibly stressed with various work and family issues. One night James had a huge argument with his sister, and Dad lost it and hit him. From past discussions I was left with the impression that he has loving parents, and there is no indication of ongoing abuse. Based on several lengthy talks I've concluded that this was a one-off event by a dad under heavy pressure who now feels overwhelming guilt about what he did. Based on school policy, however, I'm meant to report this as child abuse. I can reasonably predict this will result in some serious repercussions for the entire family. (To complicate matters, James's dad is a public figure within our local area.) My question is, do I report this? Or should I accept it as a discipline gone too far and save the family from huge consequences?
A: This is a real moral dilemma. I am trusting that your relationship with James is good enough that he is being honest with you about what happened, and is not covering for a father who constantly abuses him. You're right that reporting this will trigger all sorts of legal consequences. Even if the father understands that these rightly flow from his inexcusable action, the entire family may suffer terribly because of James confiding in you. If the father has been deeply chastened by his outburst and will never repeat it, getting this family in "the system" could bring unnecessary pain to all of them. In response to your questions, James could have told you he got a stick to the face during lacrosse and you'd never have been the wiser. I think you should not report this one instance, but keep your connection with James. If the father lashes out again, then you must take the steps to call him to account. I do wonder, however, if keeping this yourself could possibly put you in a precarious legal position for not following up on your obligation as a mandatory reporter. I'd love readers with expertise on these issues to weigh in.
Dear Prudence: Family of Scrooges
Q. Can She Handle the Truth?: Fifteen years ago a family friend raped my then girlfriend. He beat her badly, too, and she called me to the hospital. She talked to police but was too ashamed to help them prosecute the bastard. We stayed together, and when she found out she was pregnant by him, I decided to step forward as the father. We didn't last as a couple—we were in our late teens at the time—but have raised a terrific daughter who we both adore. Now our daughter is reaching the age where we could tell her about her biological father, now dead. We cannot decide if we want to tell her, because in every sense but blood she is my child, and telling the truth will be painful for all of us. But we also feel she might have a right to know. My ex-girlfriend is worried that telling our daughter about being raped will force her to tell our parents and others about it. Aside from us and our spouses, few people know. What is your take?
A: Readers, I'm sure at some point in this chat we'll have some holiday cheer. You sound remarkable and your daughter is very lucky to have such a father. I have to disagree that now that she is around 15 it's time to consider telling her about her biological origins. I think you should have started telling her—in an age appropriate way—a long time ago. Few people may know the story, but few is enough that you don't want your daughter to hear this by some way other than the two of you. I think you and your former girlfriend should first talk this through with a therapist who has expertise in adoption issues. You should also look for support groups on adoption websites. Many people have adopted children who came from painful beginnings and parents who have been there can talk you through what to expect. It may be that you tell this story in pieces as your daughter absorbs the news. You actually need to start with an apology for withholding this information from her for so long, but you two should say you realize it's long past time she was entitled to know that her biological father was someone else. However much information she wants at this first session, the thing you want to convey most is that she is your daughter and having her was the greatest gift of your life.