Is this abuse? For six months I have struggled with the revelation that my much younger half-sister was touched inappropriately as a child by her stepgrandfather. Knowing how our family prefers to bury its head in the sand, I really grappled with how to deal with this, then gathered the courage to tell our father. His response has baffled me. He says he always thought this man was a pervert and had asked my sisters when they were younger but they said nothing had happened. Now it’s clear that at least one of them was unable to tell him the truth. Understandably, being young, they were probably too embarrassed.
My half-sister didn’t want me to discuss it as she was worried for the wellbeing of our grandmother. My father plans to ask our grandmother about it and I imagine he won’t be subtle. Now I fear I may have done more harm than good. My sister is very fragile at the moment, suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, and I’d hoped that she wouldn’t be hurt further by this revelation. I should add that one time, my sister did tell her mother (when she was 16, a few years ago) that this man ran his hand up her leg to her crotch seconds after it happened and her mother was dismissive.
I feel at an utter loss as to what to do now. I don’t know the extent of the abuse, but surely, even inappropriate touching of this kind is going to be seriously damaging to a child and should be illegal? It seems a foolish question but I’m left feeling as though I’ve somehow over-reacted, though my instinct tells me no. There are other young girls in the family that this man could come into contact with, which also concerns me a great deal.
Let’s start with the question you posed in the header of your email: Is this abuse? Yes, it is. There is an excellent information leaflet published by the National Association for People Abused in Childhood called “Was it really abuse?” This is a question that victims of abuse often ask themselves.
It says: “Abuse is defined as something which causes significant harm. So if you are still struggling with what happened to you and if the memories of what happened still bring you pain or distress then sadly you were abused.”
There is lots of useful information in it that I think you and your sister(s) should read. Another excellent leaflet is “Untangling the web of confusion” that shows how abusers get away with it by manipulation.
It’s important to remember that no abuse is trivial or not “really abuse” and that child abusers often see what they can get away with before increasing their actions. Try to remember this if anyone tries to dismiss what you say as “just” your stepgrandad running his hand up your leg. I’m concerned that you say there are other young children that he comes into contact with, so I would urge you to take action.
The thing with child abuse is that the most important person, the person who should be protected first and foremost, is the child (or the child that has now grown up). Yet so often in situations such as yours, people say nothing in order to protect other adults.
To get help for you and your siblings, I would urge you to get in contact with some of the helplines below. You can talk to a trained person who can help you understand what happened and what to do next; such as reporting your stepgrandfather to the police.
I don’t underestimate the bombshell that such revelations cause in families, but by not doing anything what one is doing is essentially ignoring the abuse and possibly allowing it to continue. Shockingly, there is no legal imperative to report a situation where we think a child is being abused, although the law is different in Northern Ireland. You haven’t done more harm than good by speaking up about this, and remember: none of this is your or your sisters’ fault. So you speaking out about it doesn’t make you the bad person. Your stepgrandfather, alone, must take responsibility for his actions.
I really feel that you and your sisters, especially your younger sister by the sound of it, require support. You need your feelings validated and understood by people who know about these things. If you can do this, you can go some way to minimise the effect of what sounds like a certain amount of bad-handling of this situation by other family members.
stopitnow.org.uk, tel 0808 1000 900, email@example.com.
nspcc.org.uk, tel 0808 800 5000
childline.org.uk, tel 0800 1111
napac.org.uk, tel 0800 085 3330
First published in the Guardian Family section on 7 June 2013.