Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I am a 30-year-old, struggling single mother. My 10-year-old daughter's father, "Lenny," was in prison for the first eight years of her life. He's a career criminal. You name it, he's done it.

Lenny's out now, but he hasn't changed. He wants to spend time with his daughter, but every time I let her go with him, she comes home with another story.

The world is a scary place, and I feel the need to protect her. I'm afraid he's exposing her to the wrong things. I also think he "works" while she's around. As far as I know, Lenny is still being pursued by the law and bounty hunters.

Sometimes it seems crystal clear. But then I think: Lenny is her father. He loves her. He's just not smart enough to be part of her life.

Legally he has no rights. His name isn't on her birth certificate. There are no court orders for visitation or child support. Abby, what should I do? -- TORN IN TWO

DEAR TORN: Your first priority must be your daughter's safety. Ask yourself what could happen if the bounty hunters or the police were to catch up with Lenny and your daughter were on the premises. You already know what you have to do. Now do it.

DEAR ABBY: I have been dating "Eric" for almost six months. He's everything I've ever wanted. There's just one problem -- I am 26; he's 50.

Eric doesn't realize that I know how old he is, and I'm not sure how to tell him. We haven't met each other's families yet, but I have discussed the age difference with mine. They have accepted my choice because I am happy.

Eric is a successful businessman in our community. Although I shouldn't care what others think, I can't help worrying that this relationship could damage our reputations.

Eric has a 13-year-old daughter. I know he'll introduce us when the time is right, but his ex-wife has given him problems in the past regarding custody and visitation, and I'm scared our relationship could affect that as well.

I am prepared to accept Eric's baggage because I care deeply for him, but I'm unsure how to handle some of these issues. Any ideas? -- YOUNG AND IN LOVE IN TORONTO

DEAR YOUNG AND IN LOVE: You handle your issues by talking them through with Eric. However, you may be jumping the gun a little -- your relationship is still fairly new. I have some questions for you:

(1) Why haven't you introduced Eric to your folks?

(2) Although there is a large age difference, you are both adults; why do you think your relationship could harm your (or his) reputation?

(3) If the relationship pans out, and you reach the age of 55, Eric will be pushing 80. Will you still love him when you're in the prime of life and he is doddering?

I urge you to discuss these issues openly. The solution to your dilemma lies in the way these questions are answered.

What teens need to know about sex, drugs, AIDS, and getting along with peers and parents is in "What Every Teen Should Know." To order, send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $5 (U.S. funds only) to: Dear Abby, Teen Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600