"Mom," Alicia, my oldest daughter said to me over the phone, “Kent is sexually abusing Kathy!" I was absolutely terrified! I just didn’t know what to do – for a few minutes.
This was not the beginning of the problem in our family. We had just been through several years of counselling and putting our lives back together after the disclosure of Alicia’s six years of abuse by her father. I thought that it was over. I thought that our life was finally going to be free of some of the oppressiveness we had been feeling for so long. This was obviously a pipe dream.
When Alicia told me what was happening, my initial reaction was to want to brush it all under the carpet and pretend it wasn’t real. I asked her if she was sure. Deep down inside I knew that because of her own experience with sexual abuse she wouldn’t be lying about her brother’s actions. I didn’t want to believe my son was as sick as my husband was. I wanted to believe that it was all just a nightmare and that I would soon wake up. However, the situation was very real – frighteningly so. Little did I know how much pain, yet triumph, would be a pan of our lives for the next two-and-one-half years.
For a few moments after my daughter’s call I just stood in my office staring at the phone. It’s hard to describe the maelstrom of feelings I was going through. Rage, disbelief, confusion, and fear are just a few. I kept thinking that if I could find some way of covering it up it would just go away. However, I knew inside myself, as a result of the intensive counselling we underwent with Anderson and Mayes of Calgary, Alberta, that this was just a fantasy – a very dangerous fantasy! Having had experience with my husband, I was well aware of the fact that this problem never just goes away.
After a short time I picked up the phone with extreme trepidation and called the counselling agency. When the secretary said that the counsellor was busy, I screamed at her that it was an emergency. When Carolyn came on the phone, I blurted out that my son was abusing my daughter. She worked for several minutes trying to calm me down. Her advice was to bring Kathy into the office in order to confirm the abuse. Because Kathy was at camp, we decided to let her stay there for the last two days, rather than upsetting her more than necessary. I reluctantly agreed. However, it meant staying in the house with Kent for the entire weekend and not letting on that I knew about the abuse. I didn’t think I was strong enough to handle the pressure. What would I say to him? How could I possibly act as if nothing had happened?
The weekend was as horrible as I imagined it would be. That was when I had to face the fact that this perpetrator was MY SON, not my husband who I don’t have any blood ties to, MY SON, my own flesh and blood. How could I possibly deal with what he had done. More than that, the victim was MY DAUGHTER. Which one should I protect and help? How was I to choose who needed me more? It was the most awful feeling of being trapped that I had ever felt in my life. The pain was unbelievable!
Subconsciously I made the decision to support my son. That meant that my daughter had to become my scapegoat. What a tragedy for a parent to have to choose between children. Kathy was to become my outlet for guilt and pain. Part of the guilt came from the fact that I knew all the signs of an abused child and had observed them in her. I had talked to several professionals about them and they all confirmed that there was certainly something wrong with her but no one did any follow-up. None of us ever thought of her brother as the source of the problem. There were no other males in our life at the time.
My guilt at not being able to protect her was enormous. I felt extreme anger at not seeing what was happening in my own home. I couldn’t believe that abuse had occurred in spite of all the counselling we had gone through – as well as the fact that we talked quite openly about it in our home. This anger was somehow shifted to Kathy. I began to believe that she deserved to be the scapegoat. Also caught up in that was my belief that the male was the one who should be protected – not the female. I had protected and babied my husband so I reasoned that I should also protect my son.
My daughter and I arrived at the office on the Monday morning. During the time when one counsellor was interviewing my daughter, I was in the next office accusing her of setting my son up. I said that it was her fault. She was only seven years old but I blamed her for everything. As a victim of sexual abuse myself I knew inside how much guilt, fear, anger, and confusion she would be feeling just for letting the abuse be revealed. I simply decided she could handle more.
Carolyn must have been very angry at me for saying all the terrible things I was saying, but she didn’t show it. She let me rave in anger then quietly but firmly called a spade a spade. She told me that the chances were extremely high that Kent was indeed abusing Kathy. Kent had seen his older sister being abused. This had to have made an impression on him. The fact that he lived in such an abusive home meant that he would be at higher risk to abuse. Sibling abuse was the natural progression in the problem within our family. I just didn’t want to see all of those things at that particular time.
After the abuse was confirmed, the counsellors and I arranged for a friend to take Kathy for a while. We then arranged for Kent to meet me at work the next day for lunch. At that time I would get him over to the counselling office to be interviewed and confronted with the abuse. I chose to do this without his knowledge because I was afraid he would try to run. I wanted to be sure he was safe when confronted. He still doesn’t understand why I “set him up" this way. I just didn’t want to take the chance that he couldn’t handle the disclosure.
The Next Stage – Consequences
Kent didn’t run – he simply closed up. He refused to talk. He admitted his guilt but showed no emotion or remorse. I couldn’t believe it was the same person. He was cold and blank.
Kent was interviewed by the police and placed in a group home. I worked hard at cooperating with everyone, and yet I was very angry that they were all invading my home and my privacy. I resented having everyone examining our lives. It was like I was becoming two people. The one that was stumbling over herself to please everyone, and the one who just wanted everyone to just leave us alone and stop interfering in our lives. I hated watching my son be hounded and questioned.
It was extremely hard for me to put my son in care. For me it represented a failure on my part to be a proper mother. I felt extreme guilt. However, after he had been in the home for only a couple of days I had taken him out shopping. On the way back I said how much I hated to have to return him to the institution. He said that if I hadn’t reported the problem he wouldn’t have had to leave home. I immediately told him that he wasn’t in the group home because of what I did but because of what he did.
A week later, the disclosure was made that my other two sons – eight and nine years old – were involved in “inappropriate sexual play" with Kathy. At that point, everything started to fall apart for us. The emotional pressure was phenomenal. I couldn’t believe that not one of my five kids was to be spared the pain of sexual abuse. I began to lose control and knew that I couldn’t face these kids every day and be a proper mother. I asked for all but the oldest daughter to be placed in care. They were.
Shortly after that, I fell apart emotionally and Alicia was also taken into care. I was admitted to the hospital with a case of clinical depression. I was suicidal. I had wanted to jump off a bridge into an icy river. I thought if I was cold enough I would stop hurting. I just hurt so much that I couldn’t hurt anymore. During my social work training I had come across the term decompensation – now I fiinally understood it. I simply shut down. My affect was way out of control. I was laughing at serious matters that I knew I felt like screaming about. I was very ill.
During my stay in the hospital Kent had to go to court for trial. This was unbelievably difficult for me. I was in no state emotionally to deal with this particular pain. I had to sit there while the charges were read and then listen to the testimonies of the psychologist who had assessed Kent and then the counsellor who was working with him. I heard things about my son that I had never heard before. It was a terrifying experience. My son showed very little emotion and at times laughed about the proceedings. I couldn’t understand that. I was so afraid for him. After the hearing, I went back to the hospital and cried for two days. I hated myself more at that time than I ever had in my life.
Kathy had been placed in a foster home in the country. I couldn’t face her or talk to her. She was the only one of the kids that I had nothing to do with. She was, however, the one that needed me the most. We are still trying to repair up the damage the separation caused.
The Beginning of the End
After I was released from hospital the child welfare worker and the counsellors were trying to figure out the best way to have the family together again. The idea of having child care workers come into the home and be there from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. to help us put the pieces back together was decided upon. This was an innovative idea and one that worked extremely well. It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. To always have someone around observing every move you make was very difficult! In the end, the results were that we stayed together as a family.
Kent was out of the home for seventeen months. His transition back into the home was monitored very closely with the in-home staff who helped make his homecoming safe for all of us.
The program allowed us to work through many of the interpersonal problems we were experiencing – the reasons for the abuse in the first place. Roles were defined and put in perspective. With an in-home program you have a much better chance of identifying the communication patterns and working directly with dysfunctional behaviors. The frustration was well worth it when the outcome was so positive.
The Positive Gains
There is no denying that all of the abuse in our home was extremely painful and destructive. All of us had to learn to trust from the ground up. I had to deal with all the anger and frustration from my own abuse and home life. Until I did that I couldn’t deal with the present situation.
All of the abuse is out in the open, and now we can get on with living.
Kent was made to take responsibility for his actions and was also made to confront his sister about the abuse. It took a long time to break through the barriers of pain and fear that he had erected but the results are that he now knows what an emotion is. He understands some of the reasons for his tremendous anger. Kent is learning how to be human. I knew that if he didn’t take responsibility for his actions he would bury the problem deeper inside himself and abuse again in the future. I couldn’t let that happen.
Kathy and I are still working on our relationship. I find it very easy to dump on her. She is almost ten years old now and it will take a long time yet for us to work through my shutting her out. In her child-like innocence she tries very hard to get close to me. With as much enthusiasm I run in the opposite direction. It’s getting better but this is a very slow process. The problem is that if I run away from her emotionally, she gets the idea that she deserves to be treated badly – which is absolutely wrong.
The other kids are still having interpersonal problems but not to the extent they used to. The in-home program was effective in giving us the tools to detect the problem areas and then to confront them. This change also takes a great deal of time.
The fact that we survived having to go through all the pain is a testimony that there is an answer to the problem. The answer is not to hide the situation but rather to confront it and work it through. The rewards are far greater than you can imagine. My children now have goals – one of them is not to live the dead end life we had been living. They can now put the trauma behind them and go on with their lives. Treatment is indeed effective!
This feature: Murray, L. (1998). The Trauma of Sibling Abuse – A Mother's Perspective. Journal of Child Care 3, 3. pp.79-83.