Dear Prudence

Help! My Sister Thinks I Ruined Her Son’s Life.

Dear Prudence answers more of your questions—only for Slate Plus members.

A man is seen putting his phone to his ear, next to a graphic of handcuffs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Luis-m-Leonardo/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Trifonenko/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Q. Nephew: About six months ago, there was a rash of vandalism and burglaries in our town. Most people blamed local teenagers who were doing virtual school but whose parents still worked. I am lucky enough to work from home, and on my lunch I went out for a run. There was a foreclosed house at the bottom of the hill, and I had the perfect view to watch a group of teenagers break in. I called the cops. All the kids were caught red-handed, including my 15-year-old nephew “Billy,” who I didn’t realize was there.

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Everyone in my family was shocked because Billy has never been in trouble in his life. I didn’t see him, and Billy swears up and down they were just exploring and weren’t going to vandalize the house. It was just this “once.” Unfortunately, his “friends” confessed to other crimes (and had drugs on them) and dragged Billy down with them. He pleaded down and got sentenced to several hundred hours of community and three years probation. His parents were out nearly $9,000 between the lawyer fees and restitution. Billy is no longer eligible for school sports, and this has seriously affected his chances at college (he is a great athlete and his parents don’t make a lot).

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I felt horror when I found out Billy was involved, but looking back, I don’t think there was anything I could have done without being psychic. My sister blames me. She hopes I am “happy”’ about “ruining” her son’s life. I haven’t said anything back because I knew she was under stress. And worse, other people in our family have started to agree with her. I ended up having a serious fight with my parents because they keep lamenting Billy’s future and think it is my fault. I ended up yelling at them—when all the vandalism started, all they could do is vent about bad kids and their awful parents. My mother said she was afraid to leave home some days. If they wanted to blame anyone, Billy is right there. No one forced him at gunpoint to break into that house or hang around with bad kids. I don’t know what to do here.

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A: You can’t go back in time and undo what you did, of course. Without getting too off-topic, I think the bank foreclosing on someone’s home (especially in a pandemic) is a much graver offense than a bunch of teens breaking into an empty house, and had you been able to seek my advice in the moment, I’d have advised you to reconsider calling the police. While it’s true that Billy was not forced at gunpoint into that house, neither were you—you didn’t witness a violent crime, you knew that no one was living inside, and it’s entirely possible that this group of teens breaking into an empty house was not also responsible for for other acts of vandalism in town. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think vandalism or drug possession merits the kind of response Billy and his friends have received, but again, what’s done is done, and you can’t take back what’s already happened.

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I think you’ve done the right thing in holding your tongue while your sister expressed her anger. That anger is understandable—not least because it cost her and her husband thousands of dollars on an already-strained budget just to ensure their son received legal representation—but that doesn’t mean their every conclusion or fear for the future is necessarily accurate. You do not have to affirm their predictions that Billy’s life is ruined forever; he’s experienced serious financial setbacks and will be monitored and restricted by the state for several years, but his record can be expunged and there will be more to his life story than this. You can acknowledge that this has been painful and expensive for their family and their anger makes sense without conceding that you single-handedly or willfully “ruined his life” forever.

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I’m not sure you’ll be able to repair your relationship with your sister anytime soon, so be as patient as you can on that front. Give them some time. In the meantime, if the rest of your relatives want to work out their own frustrations by endlessly revisiting the subject, you can draw back from those conversations. It may be worth considering whether you would do anything differently if you had the chance to do it over again; if you still think you made the best choice available, then further conversations on the subject probably won’t be profitable.

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