Dear Prudence

My Friend Is Abusing Her Kid

Should I contact her ex, who abused her?

A 10-year old girl sitting on the ground and covering her eyes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Imagesbybarbara/E+ via Getty Images Plus.

To get advice from Prudie, send questions for publication to prudence@slate.com. (Questions may be edited.) Join the live chat every Monday at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the live discussion. Or call the Dear Prudence podcast voicemail at 401-371-DEAR (3327) to hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

Dear Prudence,

My friend and I have known each other for eight years, having seen each other through the birth of children, her leaving an abusive marriage, and my support of her through legal troubles and the rebuilding of her life as a single person. In the past six months, though, my friend’s drinking has become increasingly all-consuming, and she’s begun getting sloppy drunk in the presence of her child, including driving drunk with her daughter in the car. Her daughter, who is now 10, has begun to demonstrate an awareness of this drunken behavior. She called her “a drunk” and burst into tears when her mother started yelling at her. (This has happened more than once.) I was already concerned, but it recently escalated to the mother drunkenly swearing at her daughter and even grabbing her by the hair to “send her to bed.” This, while multiple adults were present!

After I said something to her about it, she became so defensive and angry that I left her house, and our friendship has effectively ended. While I am not fond of her abusive ex, I don’t believe he was ever abusive to the child, and I feel that this behavior needs to be reported to him. However, he lives in another state, and if he pursues custody, this could blow up the little girl’s life. Am I overreacting here, or is this worth jeopardizing the life the little girl has established in her current home? I know if I were in his position, I would want someone to tell me what was going on.

—Should I Tell?

You definitely should tell someone—tell more than someone, probably multiple people—but I’m not sure the girl’s father is the person to start with. You say you don’t believe he was ever abusive toward the girl, but if I were in your position, I’d need something stronger than belief. All you really know about him is that he abused his wife and lives far away. If you’re looking for a safe, stable, loving, nurturing environment for this terrified little girl, I don’t think he’s your first or best option. Can you start by talking to some of the other adults who were in the room with you the last time your friend got physical with her child? Are any of them prepared to help you come up with a stronger long-term response? Does she have any family members you know and trust who might not realize how much she’s deteriorated over the past year whom you can talk to?

Since you’ve personally witnessed acts of violence and you know she’s regularly driving drunk with her daughter in the car, you also have sufficient reason to contact child protective services. Eventually your former friend’s ex will get roped into this conversation, either by state officials investigating his daughter’s living situation or by relatives or friends who still maintain contact with him. I don’t think you have to worry that he’ll be without options or recourse. But since you have reason to at least suspect he might not provide a safe place for the daughter, don’t start with him.

And you’re not overreacting. What you’ve described—the screaming and swearing, the drunk driving, the hair-grabbing—is abuse, plain and simple, and you need to do everything in your power to help that little girl. If her mother is willing to do those things while other adults are present, I can only imagine what she’s like behind closed doors. Please start speaking up right away.

Dear Prudence,

My partner and I are getting married in a couple of days. We have asked some dear friends to officiate, but we’re only having a bare minimum of legal witnesses. We have not told our families yet and only told a few of our other friends. We’ve always wanted to elope. My relationship with my parents is distant, and my controlling father behaved so badly during my siblings’ weddings that I knew I didn’t want anything like that for myself. My partner really hates being the center of attention, so he never wanted a big, traditional wedding.

But I am anxious about people’s reactions, especially from our families, when we tell them we eloped. We’re sending out paper announcements after the fact and inviting many friends and family members to come celebrate with us in the spring. We do love our families despite the strain, but we wanted to do our wedding our way. How can we most gently break the news to our unsuspecting families and the rest of our friends? If some people react poorly and express hurt feelings, how should we respond to, and deal with, them not taking the news well?

—Eloping Confession

Waiting to send out announcements until after the fact is a good idea. Even if your family members have the worst of all possible reactions, there’s a limit to how worked up they can get over something that’s already happened, whereas if you tell them beforehand they might try to use whatever leverage or tactics they can think of to try to get you to change your mind. You might set aside some time to call your more high-maintenance family members the day the announcements go out so they feel like they’ve had a slightly more exclusive, personalized announcement directly from the happy couple. Let them know they’re about to receive a formal announcement and invitation to a celebration later in the year but you just couldn’t wait to tell them the news yourself. Gush a little! You just got married—you’re entitled to gush! If some of them express sadness or regret or even frustration, you can be sympathetic and offer them a listening ear, up to a point: “I get that you were really looking forward to [aspect of traditional wedding]. It was a difficult call to make, but we decided to elope because it was the right decision for us as a couple. And we can’t wait to get to celebrate with everyone in [month].”

That should handle your garden-variety miffed friend or cousin. If they still seem inclined to make a production out of being robbed of hearing Lohengrin, tell them, patiently yet firmly: “I understand that, but what’s done is done, and we’re not having a traditional wedding. I hope you’re able to find a way to come celebrate with us.” It’s the best way to signal that they are allowed to feel whatever they like about your wedding, but you are no longer available to take complaints, comments, suggestions, or constructive criticism about how you got married.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From How to Do It

My mother is in her late 50s and has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She tried one round of radiation, but now she is resigned to her fate and doesn’t want more treatment. She is still mentally alert and vivacious. I disagree with her decision, but I respect it.

We are open with each other, and I know that she was dating and sexually active until her diagnosis. As a final gift, I would like to give her one last fling with a young stud. I talked to an acquaintance who is good-looking, fit, and willing to perform for a reasonable fee. Do you think that I will need to tell her he is being paid? Don’t get me wrong, I would absolutely tell the truth if she asked. But this seems like a situation where “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the best policy.