This article comes from a column called Stepfamily Advice in Philly Women, written by Lisa Cohn.
My brother-in-law lost his wife to illness 7 years ago when his own children were 6 and 2 1/2. Last year he met a woman who was divorced with children in the same age range as his. She seemed very nice and pleasant but in the year following their marriage, the real stepmother has presented herself.
Last summer she claimed that my brother-law’s daughter, the oldest at 12, was a thief, liar and total behavior issue. The child was grounded for all of the summer except for about two weeks. My niece was part of Girl Scouts–she was doing that before the marriage and so were the new stepdaughters. The Girl Scout leaders have prohibited the stepmom from going on outings because of her abusive approach to discipline not only to her own girls but the other girls as well.
When my niece talked to the guidance counselor at school and asked to have Children’s Services called because of her own visible bruises last fall, Children Services investigated and then dismissed the case based on unsubstantiated evidence.
Now the abuse is verbal and control by punishment. During the late winter and early spring, the focus on the whipping boy changed to my brother-in-law’s son. Meanwhile the children have not been allowed to visit us and certain members of the family who verbally contested the treatment are eliminated from the circle all together.
In the 7 years before he met this woman, my brother-in-law was completely involved with his children. Now he is the talk of the community about how his own children are being treated in this new relationship. She is the dominating, manipulative one and he is the enabler by allowing her full reign in the guise of needing to support his wife as they become one family.
(We are trying)to figure out the best way to help and support the children. I will be very interested in any help that you might have to offer.
This is an upsetting story, and I’m so glad you’re trying to protect your niece and nephew.
David J. Draganosky, a partner with the family law practice Fox Rothschild LLP., says that if you suspect child abuse, you must keep the safety of the children in mind. “Therefore, it is important to act quickly so that further abuse can be prevented.” You should contact Children’s Services again. In Pennsylvania, for example, you’d file a complaint to the Department of Public Welfare under the Child Protective Services Law, he explains. The Department would then contact your county’s youth social service agency. However, if the county agency suspects abuse, it’s likely that the children would be taken into protective custody and placed in foster care.
If you call, you can identify yourself or remain anonymous.
Vicki Panaccione, a Ph.D. child psychologist and and Founder of the Better Parenting Institute, says that you could petition the courts or Children’s Services to appoint a “guardian ad litem.” She says that guardians serve as advocates for the children. “They can get in and investigate in ways that other social service workers cannot.” If you plan to reveal information communicated by the children, be sure to let the kids know you plan to disclose it. Otherwise, they may feel betrayed, she says.
As published in Philadelphia Daily News.
© MMVI Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D.