Can I trust my dad around young women and girls?

There was uncomfortable touching in childhood, and now he has new nieces. Should I intervene?


Cary Tennis
September 9, 2011 4:20AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm writing in the hope that you have some advice or perspective to offer about a problem concerning my dad's behavior around young women and girls.

Wow. Just writing that sentence makes this feel more real.

I'm not writing on behalf of myself, but maybe it's easiest to start there. My dad has always been very affectionate, very much a family man, but sometimes touchy-feely in a way that is borderline uncomfortable. Things like his hands stroking a little too far when giving backrubs. It never crossed the line for me enough to say anything about it; during backrubs, for instance, I would just shift. But when I was 11 or 12, some friends of mine staged an intervention to talk about how a couple of them felt they had been inappropriately touched by him -- tickling when they were preteens and not kids anymore, I think was the main thing -- and they wanted to know if he was abusive to me. I reacted in a way that shames me now that I understand more about surviving sexual abuse: I got angry with them and said they were blowing everything out of proportion, that my dad loved us all and our friends and would never hurt us. I lost them as friends shortly afterward. I heard later that they warned new friends of mine about coming over to my house.

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For years I thought it was a fluke, but when you stack up the anecdotes in retrospect, it looks like a definite pattern. This weekend I saw a childhood friend and when the intervention story came up in conversation late one night, she told me it was true for her, too: Once when she'd been visiting in high school and we all got up in the middle of the night to see a meteor shower, my dad woke her up by rubbing her back, and his hand was under her shirt. It could have been an accident, she said, but she didn't like it and she has never felt comfortable around him since then. She uses the word "hate," actually.

So. I mean, this is probably something I'm going to have to talk to a therapist about one day, but right now I'm more concerned about not being complicit in any further damage. Specifically, my dad recently got engaged to a lovely woman with a local extended family, and I want to make sure nothing happens with him and her nieces. I don't live in the same state as them anymore, but I've heard that he tutors one of the older ones (middle school-aged, I think) during the school year and that a few of them have had at least one sleepover at their "aunt and uncle's" house.

I'm planning to talk to my younger sister (my only sibling) about it. She is in her late 20s now and still living there, even though she doesn't get along with our dad (they have never gotten along -- she inherited his stubbornness). We've never talked about it that I can remember, but it would be good to find out if she or her friends ever felt like mine did. It's what comes after that that I'm nerve-wracked about. I don't know what label to put on this thing. I don't know whom to approach or what to say. I'm not sure if I should talk to my mom; when I've asked her in the past if she knew why I lost those friends, she has cited a different reason, so she either doesn't know or she's been withholding information for years.

I've never confronted my dad about this pattern. I don't know if I can. The thought makes me queasy. I was always "daddy's girl" -- we have a generally good relationship, and he has been very present and supportive in my life since as far back as I can remember. Maybe the best thing would be to talk to his fiancée, or have my sister talk to her, but again, what to say? That I'm uncomfortable with him being around her nieces unsupervised? I don't want to cause a whole furor that could ruin their relationship or estrange him from his future in-laws, whom he is so grateful to have in his life. But, of course, the well-being of the girls is the most important thing.

Thanks for listening. This was difficult to write down, but I think the time has come to do something, and I welcome anything you have to offer.

The Time Has Come

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Dear The Time Has Come,

One thing is clear. The father must be confronted about his behavior. Who confronts him and in what manner are important, but let's look at the logical necessity of it first, lest we lose our nerve.

If he has done harm and if he is to do more harm in the future, there is no way to prevent it without confronting him. Nor is there any way to assess the likelihood of his doing harm or not doing harm without confronting him. Even if everyone around him were to decide that rather than confront him, they will hide their children from him, it would not be practical. There will always be children. Aside from the injustice of placing such a burden on so many other people to be vigilant in their avoidance of him, it wouldn't work. The only way this situation can be resolved is if someone skilled in such things confronts him with the accusations and endeavors to learn the truth.

You and your family have a right to know. You also have a responsibility, as you mention. If he is not confronted about this, the family will operate around a system of secrets, fears and half-truths. People may be victimized and suffer for years because of it. Nothing good will come of silence.

Who confronts him is up to you. But here are some ideas. It could be arranged for a trusted and discreet individual with a background in law and child welfare or sex offender cases, to call on him privately and discuss this. Or it might be someone with direct experience in such things, who has undergone rehabilitation. So talk to your sister about this, and then find someone who will perform the needed action, and have that person report back to you in confidence. Your next steps will depend on the results of the interview.

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The details will have to be worked out. If he has done harm because of an obsession that is beyond his control, he may well want to put things right. If confronted in private by a skilled person expert in such things, he may take the opportunity to unburden himself. If he has a problem of inappropriate touching that does not meet standards of prosecution, perhaps he can enter treatment, and agree to certain restrictions.

There is much beyond the scope of this that may have to be considered. What if it turns out that crimes have been committed and victims wish to prosecute? Or what if he categorically denies any such behavior? What then?

These are difficult questions. But do not turn away from this, however distasteful you may find it. Your moral obligation is clear. If in talking with your sister and/or knowledgeble experts it turns out that my advice is not the best, and that some other tactic is favored, please take the action that seems most advisable.

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It's true that there are dangers in confronting him. He may react in unexpected or even tragic ways. But it is important to consider which danger is greater -- the danger of confronting him or the danger of doing nothing.

The inescapable moral imperative is that he must be confronted and an attempt must be made to ferret out the truth about his past behavior, determine if he is a danger, and protect innocent people.



Creative Getaway

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What? You want more advice?

 


Cary Tennis

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