Dear Prudence: Several months ago a woman in my neighborhood, “Helen,” died after falling in her kitchen and hitting her head on a counter.
Helen lived alone, her three children having moved out as soon as they could because of her verbal and physical abuse. Although the two youngest refused to have any further contact with her, the oldest, “Ruth,” would run errands for her and take her to doctors’ appointments.
About 10 days ago, Ruth told me in confidence that she caused her mother’s death. Helen was haranguing Ruth about her boyfriend and grabbed Ruth by the shoulder. Ruth pushed Helen away and stormed out, vowing never to see her mother again. She was aware that Helen had fallen, but didn’t go back to check on her. (Her body was later discovered by a neighbor.)
Ruth asked me not to reveal the truth to anyone. She told me because I have mentored her since she was small and because the strain of keeping it to herself was “killing” her. I want to keep her secret, but although I’ve done many Internet searches, I can’t figure out whether I’m breaking the law by doing so. Can you help me figure out what to do?
Prudence says: I have had many letters over the years from adults who are dealing with elderly, abusive parents. I even wrote about how some victims of horrific childhoods are plagued by what their obligation is to the parents who made their lives hell.
Now poor Ruth, who tried to help her miserable brute of a mother, will be haunted the rest of her days by Helen’s last day. I spoke to criminal defense attorney Betty Layne DesPortes about your situation, and the good news is that you can stop worrying. You want to keep Ruth’s secret, and that’s legally (and I think morally) fine.
DesPortes says that unless you have some specific obligation — say you are a mandated reporter of suspected child abuse — in general the average person is not required to report to the police witnessing, knowing about or suspecting a crime. That covers having heard a tortured story about an accidental death. As DesPortes notes, Ruth may feel guilty, but she doesn’t actually know how her mother died. Maybe it was as a result of her shove. Or maybe Helen got up and later in the evening had a heart attack and fell on the counter.
It’s good that Ruth was able to turn to you, and I think you should give her more advice and comfort. State laws vary as to whether talks with therapists or clergy are privileged. But in every state conversations between lawyers and clients are.
You should tell Ruth to unburden herself to an attorney, and take that opportunity to find out her state’s laws regarding talking about what happened with a counselor.
Ruth needs to discuss not only her final confrontation with her mother, but a lifetime of confrontations. DesPortes says she knows of people who years later have come forward to confess a crime because they couldn’t deal with the psychological burden. But Ruth was at her mother’s house with the intention of aiding her, Helen is now dead, and there’s no good reason to put what happened in the hands of the authorities.
Let’s hope Ruth can put herself in the hands of someone who can help her find peace.
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