When Sexual Abuse Is Suspected

A relative who suspects sexual abuse in the family seeks advice.
Several family members I am working with suspect that their niece was sexually abused by her father. The girl, who is now 18, says she hates him and will not allow her little sister to be left alone with him. Her mother seems to be unaware of the situation. This needs to be addressed, but the family members are concerned this will damage family relationships if it is not true. How do you suggest they proceed?
From your letter, it appears that you are serving this family in some form of a counseling role. The fact that this 18-year-old girl has such hatred for her father, and that she will do anything in her power to keep her little sister from being alone in his presence, strongly suggests that the 18-year-old was sexually abused by her father and that she is trying to protect her little sister. I must add, however, since I know nothing about this family, that one also has to entertain the possibility that the 18-year-old daughter's hatred of her father may stem from things other than his having sexually abused her.

Right now there are suspicions and behavior that do warrant attention.

The fear of "damaging family relationships" should not deter the exploration of this 18-year-old's behavior toward her little sister and her father. Dark family secrets are always better exposed than perpetuated.

I would recommend that a skilled family therapist who has treated sexual abuse within families begin treating this family. It is important that the 18-year-old bond with and trust this therapist, as she is the one who has sent up the red flags about possible sexual abuse by her father.

This is a most sensitive matter and the choice of therapist(s) is crucial to helping this family. The family, and especially the older daughter, must interview therapists until they find the right match for themselves.

Life should not continue for this family amidst the ongoing suspicions of paternal sexual abuse and the older daughter's frantic attempts to keep her younger sister away from her father. Intervention is needed now. Please help this family get the best professional assistance as soon as possible. Thank you for helping a family in need.

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

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