Disclosures of Abuse: How do I know for sure if my niece is being or was abused?

by Name Undisclosed
(Location Undisclosed)

For the longest time, my niece, at the age of 11 and younger, complained about the way her mother treated her, that she was abusive, left them alone at night, and that mom was using drugs in front of her and her brother. All this information was provided without us even asking. She and her brother would just begin to tell us, and others, in the midst of a conversation. They live in another state. When I questioned about it, their mom said she quit drugs, and that the children were just upset with her. My brother went to court, but had no hard evidence to prove anything, so she still has the children.

My niece, now 15, recently came for a visit. She now is saying that my brother brainwashed her, and that her mom has done nothing wrong, and that he's the one who actually abused her, and that she is no longer speaking with him.

I'm at a loss. I don't know what to believe. I have always believed that we need to listen when a child, any child, says they've been abused, in any form. But I am having a hard time with this. Not because it's my brother, but because it's such a drastic change. Why didn't she say anything at an early age? I know her mom would have called the police if he sneezed wrong (she hates my brother with a passion). My niece and nephew always loved being with him, they adored him (my nephew still does) and threw fits when they had to go back with their mom.

Their mom has always been all about how much money she can get, and tells the children that their dad never pays support, so they are poor (it's taken out of his paycheck). Whenever anything is given to the children she'll return it for the money, and keeps it for herself. She constantly says nasty things about their dad. I don't, and would never bad mouth their mom to the children, but I wonder who has been doing the brainwashing? Help!

I was also just informed by their mom, by accident, that my 15-year-old niece is now on Zoloft for depression (even though it is not FDA approved for that).

Reply from Darlene: I gather you are questioning the validity of your niece's most recent disclosure of abuse at the hands of your brother on the basis that she so readily (at a much younger age) disclosed abuse at the hands of her mother. Please understand that the two cannot be compared, as it all too often is. Many adults make the mistake of applying adult values to what children say and do at varying ages, but they either don't know about or forget about the stages of development of the brain and a child's cognitive abilities. I cannot stress strongly enough that there are maturity issues with regard to the brain, as well as experience/knowledge factors that must be considered here. Not to mention the way a child discloses.

The remainder of my answer to this Ask Darlene question "Disclosures of Abuse: How do I know for sure if my niece is being or was abused?" can be found at Comments below this submission. Depending on system activity, there are sometimes delays in comments going live on my site; but rest assured, they do eventually appear. So if you don't yet see them, I hope you will return later to read what I, and possibly others, have written. I thank you for your patience and understanding.

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Jul 22, 2008
Part 1: I can only help you understand what has already happened...
by: Darlene Barriere - Webmaster

Children often disclose as simple "statements" about what is happening in the home; but these disclosures do not necessarily translate into the child's understanding that abuse is actually present in the home. It's very possible that further disclosures by the child were as a direct result of the reaction of the first disclosure(s) to other adults. Children are exceptional at reading body language and facial expressions, as well as interpreting whispers. I have no way of knowing if it was those who were listening to the disclosures who came to the conclusion that your niece's mother was abusive, or if that deduction came directly from your niece. Chances are it was the former. She could have learned over time (by talking to other children or by observing the reaction of adults she had told) that what her mother was doing was wrong. She would also have experienced fear, uncertainty and a host of other emotions when she and her brother were left alone, as well as when her mother was doing drugs in front of them. She may well have felt—and may well continue to feel—responsible for her mother; this is sometimes referred to as "parentizing of the child."

If your niece does in some way feel responsible for the care of her mother, even if it's blended with a combination of anger and hatred, it would not be unusual for her to protect her mother, (even if her mother was/is abusive) especially if her mother has cleaned up her own act somewhat. Perhaps her mother has in some way provided some much-needed support to your niece, support that every 15-year-old girl needs. This could be something as simple as her mother taking the time to listen to her about a boy or about an incident at school. ANY act of support from a neglectful parent is generally glommed onto by the child, because the child is so desperately needy. In the mind of your niece, such support could easily supersede any and all feelings of animosity, any and all abusive acts of the past.

And yes, perhaps there has been brainwashing.

But you must understand that there is a dynamic present between your niece and her mother that may well display at complete opposite ends of the spectrum (love and hate; anger and calmness; confusion and understanding; contentment and discontent). Volumes have been written about such dynamics and relationships. This is a volatile and emotional time for your teenage niece, even without all that she has had to grow up with. Add to the jumble the experimental use of an antidepressant on the not-yet-mature adolescent brain: One mustn't ask why there is such confusion, but rather, why NOT! Not to mention asking why she's on it in the first place!

Part 2 follows below.

Darlene Barriere
Violence & Abuse Prevention Educator
Author: On My Own Terms, A Memoir

Jul 22, 2008
Part 2:
by: Darlene Barriere - Webmaster

Based on what you've stated, your niece's mother at the very least neglected her daughter and son. Not only did she fail to provide the basic needs, she also put them in harms way. It's quite likely that you didn't hear the worst of it.

As for your brother, it is possible that he too abused his niece in some way without her mother's knowledge at the time, (you didn't say what or how your niece disclosed) but no matter what, I'm in no position to say with any degree of certainty. I cannot tell you what to believe; you're the one who heard your niece's disclosure. Nor am I oblivious to the family dilemma here. If there's a nonchalant way for you to broach the subject with your niece again, I recommend you follow the H.E.A.R.S. procedure I've outlined on my Intervention page on this site. Then pay close attention to how she responds when you tell her that you're going to report.

It all comes down to you. If you either suspect or know (by disclosure or otherwise) that your brother has abused your niece, you have a moral if not legal obligation (depending on where you live) to make a report. Just don't make the mistake of writing off what your niece told you based on a comparison of what she disclosed to you about her mother when she was a younger child.

I wish you all the best. And I sincerely hope your niece gets the professional help she needs.

Darlene Barriere
Violence & Abuse Prevention Educator
Author: On My Own Terms, A Memoir

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