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Is my boyfriend sexually abusing my niece?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

My boyfriend loves playing with my 6 year old niece. Last weekend we all were on the couch watching tv and I left the room for about 10 minutes. I thought they were a bit too quiet so I walked in quietly to see what they were doing. He heard me and jumped back on his side of the couch. His faced looked very strange and he was shaking a bit. I asked what were they doing and he said "jumping". Should I ask my niece if he touched her in any way? If so, what is the best way to do this? She wasn't acting strange in any way.

He's addicted to porn. Also a while ago, he was playing doctor with her in the bed. She is the one that usually starts this game and would take him to her room to play. Thanks for any advice.

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Aunt,

Whenever an adult’s actions with a child make you have that “gut feeling”, it is important that you not ignore what you’re noticing. I’m glad you’ve done the often difficult thing of questioning a close adult’s behavior – as that is not easy – but it is a vital step to preventing abuse.

Defining Child Sexual Abuse
When you say that your boyfriend and niece were playing doctor, I’m not exactly sure what this means. Were they playing with their clothes on? What kind of activites were part of the play? Was this in a room with an open door, or was there a sense that this was supposed to be private or a secret? I want to be clear that any action (looking, touching, showing) to meet an adult’s sexual needs is Sexually Abusive, and even if a child does something initiate a sexualized game,  it is always an adult’s responsibility to redirect unsafe behavior, and it's important to remember that a child can never consent to any sexual behaviors with any other child or adult.

Identifying Warning Signs
You say that your boyfriend has been addicted to pornography, and I’m wondering if there’s anything else you’ve noticed in him that’s made you worried. Please review these Behaviors To Watch Out For When Adults Are With Children and these Signs an Adult is At-Risk to Harm a Child and see if you observed any of these in him. Are you aware of anyone else who may have concerns about his behaviors? If you have any trusted friends or family who have expressed any concerns, you may want to share these tip sheets with them to see if they're aware of anything. Sometimes, by looking at these signs, a person can put a finger on something they felt before but couldn’t put into words or describe.

Yes, sometimes adults who are at-risk to harm a child may engage in inappropriate behaviors to slowly desensitize the child and the child’s caregivers to certain actions or touch, but sometimes well-meaning adults also engage in the same or similar behaviors because they are not aware how their actions may put a child at risk. Even without knowing more, it sounds like the atmosphere your boyfriend is providing your niece may Make Her Vulnerable to abuse. If she thinks it’s okay for him to not respect her personal space, she may not realize that she has the right to refuse any unwanted action or touch.

Speaking Up
Often having a calm conversation with an adult may help them understand how their own behavior may impact a child, and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to have a discussion with your boyfriend (but please only do so if you feel safe). If anyone else (like a friend or relative) had also been concerned or noticed what you had, I’d encourage you to bring them along. You may even want to role-play what you’d like to say beforehand to feel more comfortable in the moment.

This talk doesn’t have to be accusatory or judgmental, but instead focus on the behaviors that you have witnessed that have made you uneasy and how it relates to your niece: how it can give her the wrong idea about what’s okay and what’s not okay, and how this may make her vulnerable to other unsafe adults. Children take cues from the important adults in their lives, and the way your boyfriend talks to and behaves with her will teach her what to expect from others and how she should be treated. Our guidebook called Let's Talk has some good tips on how to prepare for this discussion.

Planning for Safety
Then, you can invite him to respect your safety planning rules. Safety Planning articulates the guidelines about body boundaries, privacy, respect, and consent to your niece, and asks caregivers to model and respect these healthy boundaries too. This is a great way to get everyone on the same page about body boundaries, and is often useful because it doesn’t single any one person out. For now, it would be a good idea to make sure that your boyfriend is also not allowed to play alone with your niece.

Some families have rules like: Adults and children always play with our clothes on, with doors open, and we keep our hands to ourselves. The places we cover with a bathing suit are private. There is only one person behind a closed bathroom door, and we always knock before entering. If anyone is ever asking about your private parts, talking to you about theirs, or if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable or scared, it is important to speak up to a trusted adult. And whatever else you may want to tailor to your needs.

You certainly can check-in with your niece as well. This chat should be casual, and there is no need to ask about this or any particular event repeatedly. The next time you are in the car together, out for a walk or maybe coming back from an outing, start the discussion. Keep the questions open-ended, rather than posing ones that would elicit a more specific answer. Asking her things like: “How do you like playing with my boyfriend? What kind of games do you play? What kind of rules do you need to know to play that game? Who is your least favorite person to play with? Why is that? Has anyone ever made you feel weird or uncomfortable? How? Has anyone broken a body boundary rule with you? Have you ever played any games that made you feel scared or uneasy, or has anyone asked you to keep a secret?...”

I'm not sure who are your niece's primary caretakers, but you may want to share general information about safety planning and communicating with children. With so much in the media these days about children's sexual safety, it's more easy to bring up with any caring adult the issue of children's well-being. We should be talking about children's safety, before we have a concern whenever possible so I do encourage you to share these tip sheets on safety planning with whomever is her primary caretaker(s).

Responding to Disclosures
If your niece says anything that sounds like a disclosure of sexual abuse, then I would encourage you to file a Report with Child Protective Services (CPS) so they can follow up. Otherwise, please also keep an eye out for any changes in her mood or behavior that may indicate she may be struggling with something (like these Warning Signs in Children of Possible Sexual Abuse), and check-in with her parents as needed.

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: January 12th, 2018