My stepdaughter stole my wallet

She kept the cash but discarded the rest. It's time to throw her out of the house, right?

Published December 27, 2004 8:20PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My husband's youngest offspring is living with us, stealing from us, lying about it and getting away with it. I'm not sure if I should use the most recent event to claim my marital home as my own, shut up and let things work themselves out, or cut to the chase and file charges.

I am a middle-aged, well-established professional lady and recently married my boyfriend of some 12 years. He has four children from a prior marriage, the youngest of whom were in junior high when I met him. I didn't know him before his divorce. Under its terms he got custody of the children. His ex-wife lives in town, and had ample, but rarely exercised, visitation rights. We didn't live together prior to our marriage, although I was a frequent visitor to his home and a fixture of the family's life.

As they grew, these bright, engaging children had brushes with the law for petty thefts and fighting, ran away, had bouts with uncontrollable rage, dropped out, indulged in the usual abusable substances, involved themselves in the kind of intrigues and dramas you'd expect from high school pseudo-gangs, generally made the bad choices I expect all parents hope their kids will avoid, and lied, lied, lied about it all. I watched my wonderful man reason with them, set limits, pay fines and attorneys, clean up after them, lose work, worry, work all night, go to co-counseling, bargain, scream, cry and despair. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. He thinks (and he's probably right) that their issues are all about abandonment, since their mother literally walked off and left them. All he did was stay, and they can't seem to let him stop paying for it. One thing is sure, he will never, ever give up on them.

But I will. I'm not like him. His daughter, 21, is still living with us. She is unemployed, dropped out of college after one semester and spends most of her time holed up in her room or out with friends. I think she plans to be a lottery millionaire. She puts nothing into the household -- money or labor -- and pretty much treats our home like a flophouse. He's as disappointed in her as I am, but always says kicking her out will just cause more problems for him than for her, in the long run. There's some truth in that, I guess.

Also, she's been stealing from us -- small items and cash, like kids do when they are a lot younger than she. But last Saturday she stole my entire wallet, kept the cash and "threw the rest away." Aside from the $250 wallet itself, the "rest" included everything an identity thief would wish for during this joyous holiday shopping season. She denied it, of course, but eventually I found evidence that couldn't be explained away and she confessed to the deed.

At this point, her father doesn't know she's the perp, although he suspects it. I am so mad I could spit, preferably on her, unless she's on fire. A second sure thing is that I am not going to live with a thieving liar. A line has been crossed. Now my question: Should I use this latest larceny to empty the nest, or is there something more positive that can come out of this? Or am I just an evil stepmother?

Evil Stepmother?

Dear "Evil Stepmother,"

Evil stepmother? You're not an evil stepmother. No doubt there are layers and layers of marriage and family counseling-type issues bubbling to the surface here. But I would deal with the matter at hand. You and your husband together have to tell his daughter that she can no longer live there. Basically, you throw her out.

No father wants to see his daughter as a thief. He may not want to throw her out. But I think he will see what has to be done. He's not doing his daughter any favor by letting her live with you. Throwing her out may teach her a lesson, but that's not even the point. Thinking he can still teach her a lesson could be your husband's biggest weakness. Your husband's ability to impart further wisdom to her is probably just about nil right now, and decreasing with the passage of time. She has to go.

There's no way a family can live together if you can't put your wallet down on a table and be able to grope around later that night, or in the morning, and find it, and dig out that receipt for the lamp that you got overcharged for and say, Aha, see, I told you they overcharged me! I mean, that's the very definition of shelter. Since the very earliest humanids began living in social groups for mutual protection, the wallet stuffed with receipts has been the key totem that delineated the domestic sphere from the wild. Proto-humanid wallets have been found in the oldest archaeological digs -- some even with the credit cards still in them! Amazing! But true. Because the wallet is the central item of domestication. Elephant skin. Buffalo skin. The wallet and the hearth. That's home and family.

I'm not sure there is a whole lot more to say than this: You cannot live with people who steal your wallet and scatter your credit cards on the sidewalk in a bad part of town; when family members do that they forfeit the privileges of the familial bond -- you know, that gray zone where you tolerate stuff from family that you wouldn't tolerate from a roommate. Theft of money puts them on the other side of the fence. You can still talk to them, and they can still be your family. But you can't live with them.

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