Child abuse: Should a teacher always report family violence?

Help! Should I Call Child Protective Services on a Student’s Hot-Tempered Dad?

Help! Should I Call Child Protective Services on a Student’s Hot-Tempered Dad?

Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 19 2011 3:05 PM

Isolated Incident?

Dear Prudence advises a teacher reluctant to report abuse for fear of fracturing a family—during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

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 prudence@slate.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?

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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.

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Q. Christmas Party: Two weeks ago a colleague and I moved into a new department with our company. Whilst we had been collaborating closely with this department for six months, we have only just "officially" become members of the team (which has 12 people). Today was our Christmas party and neither of us was invited. I don't think everyone realized (some colleagues had asked for menu recommendations during the day as it's my favorite restaurant). I didn't want to say that we hadn't been extended an invite, because I kept thinking they would realize as they walked out the door. But alas, as they left the party planner (the boss' personal assistant) came over and asked if I could man the phones whilst they were gone. Should I be offended? I want to acknowledge that the other guy and I feel slighted, but I don't know if that's appropriate.

A: Anyone would be offended. This would have been a very good opportunity for you to get to know the rest of the group in a social setting and the snub—though probably not intentional—is highly irritating. The two of you have two choices. Go in together to the boss' office and say with as light a touch as you can muster that of course there's nothing to do about it now, but you two wanted to note it would have been helpful in your getting to know everyone to have been invited to the Christmas celebration. Alternately, since people are going to be scattered and scattering with the holidays approaching, you two could decide to let it go and hope that there will be a mental reset when the new year begins and you two will be officially considered part of the team.

Q. Mandatory Reporter: I am a high-school teacher. By law, the teacher has to report to Child Protective Services, or whatever is the appropriate authority in the teacher's state. And usually reporting to school officials is not sufficient. In the two states that I worked in before becoming certified, noncertified teachers (such as often at private schools) are still mandatory reporters. There is no wiggle room in this. And he does not know whether James is cleaning up the truth to try to "protect" his father.

A: Thanks, I wanted to hear from someone with expertise. I think you make a very good case.

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Q. A Teacher's Question: Just to consider it from another angle: Sure, the father could be chastened. But this wasn't a spanking or small slap. He left bruises. Unless he's already marched himself to anger counseling, this guy has a problem. I have to wonder if he hasn't already abused them emotionally with his anger. If a woman wrote to you and said her husband hit her once, left bruises, but felt really bad, this is truly just an honest question, no snark—would you give the same advice?

A: Excellent points. These are bruises. Maybe it will be the best possible thing for the father to be required to get anger management, etc. I do feel a little sick, however, about the possible consequences for James himself in confiding in the teacher. The family could be torn up in a way he never anticipated. It used to be that everyone just looked away from situations like this. Now you end up in the legal system. We don't have a middle way in which, for example, the principal can insist the family gets some counseling but that the authorities are not called in.

Q. One Time Abuse: Wow, what a way to open up the discussion! As a counterpoint, maybe the grad student who came upon Sandusky with a child in the shower thought it was a one-time thing that would never be repeated.

A: A lot of people are making the Sandusky point. But I think we can agree it is also possible for a loving father to lose it on a single occasion in a way he regrets for the rest of his life.

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Q. Adoption Dilemma: Emily, did you miss that even the former girlfriend's and adopted father's parents don't know about the rape and the truth of the conception? Telling in this case would open an enormous can of worms. I'm usually all for children knowing this information, but this is a tough one.

A: I did note that—the circle is indeed tiny, but the letter writer said there were "a few" people. I'm almost always in favor of people knowing the truth about their origins. But sometimes I've come down on the side that in particular cases saying nothing might be better. (In one case when a married woman had a brief affair with a colleague, got pregnant, told no one but the husband about the affair, and he had raised the child as his.) I agree there's no easy answer here, but telling the girl long ago in the way people tell about adoption would have made this much easier.

Q. Re: Can She Handle The Truth?: While I agree with you, Prudence, it also means they have to tell the whole family, which will be difficult but is necessary. They don't want to tell their daughter this news and then swear her to secrecy. That's not fair to the daughter.

A: Excellent point. This really means the young mother and father need to talk through these issues with some experts to prepare themselves, and all their loved ones, for the fallout.

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Q. Help!: I'm about to get married soon (hooray!). Unfortunately we've had one disaster after another with the wedding plans, and the latest was my wedding dress being stolen from my parents' house. I've been looking around desperately for a dress I can get as quickly as possible with short notice. Upon hearing my dilemma, my aunt decided to surprise me with a replacement dress that was supposed to be a replica of the one that perished. My aunt sews as a hobby, but this is the first time she's made an actual dress. I hate to say this, but it is really, really bad. I wish I could send you a photo of it. Everything is uneven and the stitching goes everywhere. It's a replica of my dress alright, but it looks like it was sewn together by a 7- year-old. The problem is she spent a lot of money on buying the material and obviously made it with love. I feel awful rejecting the dress on the basis that it is badly made. I've tried to think of excuse after excuse, but what can I actually say? I can't say I don't like the dress because she copied the original. Just before she gave it to me, she asked me if I found a replacement dress, and I said no—so I can't even say I found something else, either. Can you please offer me some other polite excuse that won't hurt my aunt's feelings?

A: Thank you for a problem that is not making my stomach churn. I think you should insist on reimbursing your aunt for the cost of the materials and that you should also send her flowers or get her a lovely gift as a thank you. Then you should say that while you will be forever grateful for her wonderful efforts, you've come to feel that first dress and everything about it was snake-bit and you're going to go in another style direction altogether and get a different dress. Then budget for a “rush job” and run out and get a new dress.

Q. Do I Get To Keep My Married Name? I was married for four years. We are divorced now, but I have kept my married name. I just like it better. My maiden name was hard to pronounce and my married name just flows. We never had kids so I am not keeping it for them. My ex has made it clear that he and his family would prefer I go back to my maiden name. But, like I said, I prefer my married name. I never interact with my ex or my former in-laws. Do I get to keep my married name?

A: You get to call yourself Jennifer Jolie if you like the way it flows. I can see why you divorced this guy and this holiday season you must be glad to have his entire family out of your life. However, feel free to march forth through life with his lovely name.

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Q. Reciprocal Gifts: I called my only sister the other day to ask her if there was anything either of them wanted or needed for Christmas. She told me not to buy them anything because they didn't feel they had the money to buy my husband or me anything this year. Her husband just started his own business after being out of work for more than a year, so they have his business loan to pay off plus debt racked up while he was out of work. I don't mind not getting a Christmas gift from her, but my husband and I both have good jobs and no kids, and I would really like to buy her something. Is it OK to get her something even though she asked me not to?

A: I hope you have the kind of relationship with your sister in which you can say you completely understand their situation, you absolutely do not want gifts in return, but it would give you great pleasure to make their Christmas a little brighter—you know they would do the same for you if the situation were reversed. If your sister agrees get some nice, if modest, gifts. The thing this family needs is money, so the real present should be a generous check in a card with your wishes that 2012 is filled with joy and success.

Q. Concerts and Cell Phones: My younger daughter had a string concert the other night. A couple was filming it with their cell phone. However, what bothered me, apart from their walking in front of the audience during numbers, was that, when a small group came forward to play, the couple not only moved around to film the concert, but walked around several violin players on the floor to film the stage. The wife actually walked behind four violinists on the floor to put her phone up to the speaker while the group was playing. I said nothing, but thought it was tactless and inconsiderate of the performers. Should I have said something? If so, what, and when?

A: For all future concerts there should be a policy in place before the music starts that filming is allowed only from one's seat or standing discreetly in a designated place that won't disturb the musicians or audience. It would also be helpful if the parents got together and set up a tripod and made a master recording of the event everyone could purchase a copy of. I have also noted after years of my daughter's piano recitals that the parents who seem to enjoy the event most are the ones who just let the music flow over them.

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Q. URGENT About Abuse: My mother was very violent with me as a child and adolescent, and she too was a public figure. I covered for her all the time but secretly prayed that someone would notice and report her. No one did. This teacher MUST report what he or she saw. The fact that the father is a public figure doesn't matter. ANYONE who hits a child on the face is an abuser, Prudence, and I'm shocked that you could suggest otherwise.

A: The responses keep coming. I agree the father's position in the community is irrelevant. You present a powerful argument, and all the other testimony about the teacher's legal obligation is compelling. I'm not excusing the father, but it also is possible the son wasn't covering for recurrent abuse, he was telling about a single occasion.

People are saying getting in "the system" could be a good thing for this family. That could be true, and I'm not arguing with the people who have made the case to report. But it's also possible that there could be unforeseen consequences—this is the kind of thing that could potentially cost the father his job.

Q. Facebook Is Awful: My son, a toddler, passed away after a long battle with cancer this past July. My husband and I did not announce his death on Facebook; that felt weird and gross. We don't discuss his death on Facebook either because we are friends with a lot of people, a good number of them casual friends. Our grief is too personal for that. But a good friend keeps posting memorial photo albums and discussing our son's passing on her Facebook. She loved our son, so I know she's legitimately heartbroken over losing him, but my husband and I are disgusted by her lack of discretion. It feels like she's using Facebook to garner sympathy over our son's death. Or at the very least she's overstepping an important boundary to my husband and I and using pictures of our son in a way that only we have a right to use them. We have asked her as kindly as possible to stop and she hasn't. What should our next step be?

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A: I am so sorry for you loss, and while you understand your friend is grieving, too, once you asked her to take down her very public memorial, that should have been something she did immediately. I think you should have one more go and ask a mutual friend to impress upon her that her tribute is causing great pain and she should take it down. If she won't, defriend her. Someone that insensitive to your feelings should go on hiatus from your lives.

Q. Can You Please Offer Me Some Other Polite Excuse That Won't Hurt My Aunt's Feelings?: An unfortunate accident with a glass of cranberry juice?

A: Nice idea. Maybe she could say she put in on and was celebrating with a glass of red wine and oops!

Q. Meeting My Boyfriend's Kids: I am meeting my boyfriend's son and daughter soon. I am terrified at the prospect of meeting them. I am so desperate for them to like me, and I don't have much experience with kids. What should I do to calm myself and to make a good first impression? My boyfriend says they're excited to meet me.

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A: You didn't find your boyfriend by having a flashing neon sign on your forehead declaring, "Desperately looking for love!" Desperation repels. His kids may be open to you, they may be skeptical, they may be hostile. You do what you do in any situation in which you want to make a good impression. Take a deep breath and stay relaxed, have a sense of humor, and don't try too hard.

Q. Sister's Marital Woes: My kid sister has always been into fairy tale love: Disney movies, then Jane Eyre, and lately the Twilight novels. Three years ago she married her boyfriend of nine months after a whirlwind romance. They had their first child a year later, their second a few months ago. Her husband, though attentive, is very busy supporting their family. Their marriage is no longer in the honeymoon phase, and now my sister wants a divorce because her marriage isn't "Edward and Bella" perfect. She's disappointed because she doesn't believe she and her husband are soul mates. I want to support her, but I don't believe in soul mates or everlasting fairy tale love. I think she needs to grow up and recognize that she'll likely never find a "soul mate." How can I support her while making her aware of reality?

A: I admire you for not saying: "How did Mom and Dad raise such a total nitwit? If you divorce your husband you will be a single mother with two kids, no money, and few romantic prospects. Robert Pattinson has not been waiting for you to end your marriage so he can start drinking your blood." Instead say: "Let me help you find a marriage counselor. Real life is hard, and sometimes dull. But you have a good man, two beautiful children, and blowing up your family for a fantasy will cause all of you terrible pain."

Q. Father Could Lose His Job: But the teacher could too. And the student could wind up deeply emotionally—possibly physically—scarred. I realize your point Prudie, and it's a decent one to consider. But I just feel like there is too much at stake. Honestly, unless she KNOWS the family is going to counseling, steps are being taken to protect those kids, I can't argue to not report.

A: Yes, you've all won me over.

This has surely got to be the most bummer pre-Christmas column ever. But thank you everyone for weighing in this week, and all year, with your excellent insights and advice. I will be off next week, so I'll talk to you again in 2012! Best wishes to all.