Legal vs Family
Family relationships after sibling sexual trauma are difficult and complicated. Legal system involvement takes things to the next level. Individual and family needs for healing are often at odds with the legal requirements of the criminal justice system. It’s not unusual for family members to feel forced to choose between following legal advice and doing what they feel is best for mental health, relationships, or healing.
There are no easy answers. Every situation is different. Often the only choices are between bad and worse. But know you are not alone in your questions and dilemmas. Here are just a few examples and some possible ways to think about them. (I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. See guidance on finding a lawyer.)
The police want to talk to our son. If we hire a lawyer for him, are we betraying our daughter? Does it mean we’re not supporting her?
Legally: He has a constitutional right to a lawyer. He needs a lawyer so that he will be treated fairly and according to the law by law enforcement and prosecutors. The legal choices he makes now, with or without counsel, could affect him for life, and cannot be undone.
Relationally: Your daughter, her therapist, human services, even prosecution staff may see this as a sign that you are “taking his side.” You may or may not be able to explain that this is not the case. Even if she understands intellectually, she may still feel betrayed on a gut level. She needs to feel your support, for her own healing, and for your relationship to go forward.
Note: One potential benefit of securing a lawyer to handle the offending sibling’s criminal case is that parents are relieved of the stress and responsibility of understanding the legal process and navigating interactions with law enforcement and legal systems. This frees the parents to focus more on everyone’s welfare and healing.
Do we have to report our own son to police?
It depends--see full discussion on this page.
If we bring our daughter to tell her story to police, are we betraying our son?
Legally: No one is required to talk to police, not even victims or witnesses. Once your daughter gives her testimony, it will be considered evidence and could be used to prosecute your son. However, if your daughter is a minor and you do not let her be interviewed, this could affect the way authorities view you and handle your case. You need to be careful not to influence her on what to say if she is interviewed.
Relationally: If your daughter wants to tell her story, it is important to support her in doing that. If she is undecided or reluctant to tell her story, you can get her in contact with a victim advocate to learn her options. If she is an adult, it is her decision. If she is a minor, you still need to bring her to the interview, but it is up to her to decide what she says in the interview.
I want to apologize to my little brother--and to my parents. But my lawyer has told me not to talk to anyone, and the police are telling us we cannot contact each other. They also said it might be a year before this is all over.
Legally: Your attorney is advising you not to talk, because if your case goes to trial, your brother will have to testify, and by talking to him you could be accused of influencing or intimidating him and tampering with evidence. Your parents could even be required to testify about what you told them. The actual chance that your case will go to trial is extremely slim, but your attorney needs to proceed and advise you under the assumption it will happen.
Relationally: The legal system is going to take a long time to resolve this. There might be a way to get the basic message across to your brother through your parents or your therapist. If you are both adults, you are free to choose what you do and free to decide whether or not to follow your attorney’s advice.
We are worried about our adult son and want to show him we still love and support him, but his lawyer told him not to talk to anyone. What can we do?
Legally: He was advised not to tell you anything or admit to anything, so that if you are questioned by police or called to testify in court, you will have nothing to tell. It is a realistic possibility that the police will ask to talk to you, but you do not have to talk to them. It is highly unlikely you will be called on to testify in court, but if you are, then you need to appear and tell the truth.
Relationally: You can offer one-way messages of support without asking your child to reveal anything. You and your son can also weigh the legal risks of talking with the possible benefits to your relationship. The legal system can take a very long time--usually a year or more--to finish with the case.
As parents, we want to know what happened so we know how to help both our children. But everything they have said is “sealed” so it can be used as evidence. Why don’t we have a right to know?
Legally: If evidence is sealed, it cannot be viewed until the case is resolved. If your children are still minors, therapists and human services staff may be able to access the information and summarize what you need to know.
Relationally: Any information you get will be from your children directly, or through their therapists if they are minors and/or give their permission. If you are supportive, patient, and respectful of your child’s boundaries and space, they will be more likely to confide in you. The truth often comes out over time--even to the people that actually lived through the sexual trauma themselves.