Exercising Caution

Dear Mr. Dad, I was changing my two year old daughter’s diaper after she’d come home from spending the day with her father (he and I are not together). She was touching herself and I told her to stop because her hands were dirty. She then said that “daddy touches me here.” I am completely freaking out. Why would he do something like that to her? Should I call the police?

A: I know I’m going to take a lot of flak for this, but the first thing you need to do is take a big, deep breath and calm down. Your natural reaction to hearing what your daughter said is to jump into action and do everything you possibly can to protect her—what parent wouldn’t? Ordinarily, I’d suggest erring on the side of caution and immediately making the call to the authorities. But before you pick up the phone, you need to be absolutely sure you know exactly what’s going on.

Taking your daughter to the emergency room for a cough that turns out to be nothing more than a cold may cost you a few extra co-pay dollars and leave you feeling a little embarrassed. But making a child abuse report for something that that turns out to be a misunderstanding is completely different. Many family law attorneys call a child abuse accusation the nuclear bomb of divorce cases, and with good reason: Once you start the process there is no going back. Ever. I’ve done a lot of research and writing on accusations of child abuse and I’ve seen too many cases where unfounded (and sometimes deliberately false) accusations have completely destroyed the lives of the accused.

As you know, diaper changing involves touching a child in a way that in any other circumstance would be completely inappropriate. And while no one wants to believe that a child would lie about something as serious as abuse, the fact is that you’re dealing with a two-year old. Kids that age still have trouble differentiating fact from fiction and are notoriously unreliable witnesses.

So what should you do? Start with checking in with your gut. Do you honestly have any reason to believe that your daughter’s father would abuse her? The answer is probably No. But don’t leave it at that—we’ve all heard of cases where people no one would ever suspect (priests, coaches, trusted relatives) have done the most horrible things.

If you have a good relationship with your ex, ask him if he’s noticed anything different about your daughter, whether she’s behaving oddly or saying strange things while she’s with him. If he hasn’t, tell him what your daughter said. But choose your words carefully. Your goal here is to gather information. Coming out and accusing him is a guaranteed conversation stopper.

You may want to get some advice from a close friend, but be careful: certain people—doctors, therapists, day care workers, and others are what’s called “mandated reporters,” meaning that they are required to report any suspicion of abuse—even if they aren’t 100 percent sure.

Although it’s tempting, try not to ask your daughter any more about this. Toddlers have an uncanny ability to read our expressions and will adapt what they say to what they think we want to hear—even if it’s completely made up. So wait a little and see whether she brings it up again without any prompting.

I’m not trying to minimize your fears—just hearing your story makes me wince. I just want you to be absolutely sure before you pick up that phone.