The American Judges Foundation reports that seventy percent of abusive fathers are the winners in custody fights. As children are handed to their molesters, protective mothers must watch helplessly—or respond to a higher calling than a judge’s order.
Ms. Toni Schott’s oldest daughter was three-and-a-half years old when a caseworker from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare found that the child’s scarred vagina was the result of sexual abuse. The articulate child told two therapists that her father had done it, but the judge misinterpreted a physician’s testimony and gave the father overnight visitations. A higher court refused to reopen the case to hear the physician’s offer of clarification. Less than two years later, before age three, Toni’s younger daughter contracted vaginal herpes and, like her sister, told of her father’s abuse to a Department of Health and Welfare counselor.
After a pediatrician discovered large fissures around two-and-a-half-year-old Anne D’Angelo’s son’s rectum, he concluded that the boy had been raped many times. The child pointed to his father as the perpetrator, and a therapist on behalf of the X State Department of Children and Families supported the pediatrician’s conclusion and determined that the boy’s father was raping both him and his older brother. Nevertheless, the judge gave the father joint custody.
Although Bonita Shain’s three-year old son reported to a Kentucky Child Protective Services’ worker about his father and his father’s friend touching his private parts, the DA did not prosecute. When four years later the boy continued to report sexual abuse, which was substantiated by CPS, and refused to see his father—an alcoholic who had threatened to murder Bonita and other family members and admitted in court to drug dealing—a judge determined that Bonita had alienated her son. Although no evidence was heard to discredit Bonita’s mothering skills, the judge ruled that both her boys be transferred to the father’s sister’s custody, allowing Bonita only three hours a week supervised visits.
Toni, Anne and Bonita—and countless protective mothers—stand bewildered and livid against a complex legal system that refuses to help their molested children. Instead, against all corroborating evidence of sexual abuse, that system holds the mothers accountable for their children’s reporting, on the rationale that the mothers must have coached their children.
Experts such as
Gardner, who committed suicide on
Toni Schott’s experience of the court’s indifference toward her older daughter taught her not to count on the court for help for her younger child. She hid in
Anne D’Angelo fled with her children to
When Bonita Shain’s boys, ages four and seven, heard the judge’s verdict that would place them with their aunt, they begged their mother to hide them because their father had threatened to kill them if they told what he had done. In November 2002, Bonita Shain packed her car and left town with her children.
In these three cases, the judges applied PAS, ignoring the fact that each case of abuse was discovered or diagnosed and reported by ER physicians or child welfare professionals—not by the mothers. The physical evidence was supported by the each child pointing to his or her father as the abuser.
Research has shown that children are reluctant to report abuse, often denying it against evidence, as they feel shame and guilt over it—if not outright fear of the abuser 1. Moreover, studies show that in 98.4 percent of the cases where very young children point to their molesters they tell the truth 2. However, in most states family court judges are not required to take certification courses in domestic violence and child abuse, nor are judges held accountable for ignoring or refusing to hear evidence. Instead, favoring the interests of the fathers—the presumed victims of the mothers’ vicious fabrications—over the safety of the children, judges employ the unsupported PAS theory or its derivations. They seek no evidence that indeed a mother has actively alienated her child as they sever this relationship.
These past few years, across the nation, children have been encouraged to tell a trusted adult about abuse. Child-friendly websites have been established to help abused children. Mandatory reporting laws have been imposed on educational and medical institutions and their employees. Local police officers visit schools to talk to the children and encourage them to seek help from trusted adults.
Yet, in “Small Justice,” an award-winning documentary by
So much for asking children to report abuse. Those who report it soon learn that no one listens. A therapist at the not-for-profit North Shore Child and Family Guidance Association in
Child sexual abuse is a criminal matter, which family courts are not equipped to adjudicate. Yet, provided with broad judicial discretion, they stand powerfully protected from scrutiny—or appeal—when failing to apply standard principles of justice and constitutional rights of due process. In January 2003, in her investigative Boston Phoenix article, “Custodians Of Abuse,” Kristen Lombardi describes how, nationwide, three problems plague the system: First, criminal investigation has been replaced by evaluation provided by guardians ad litem (GAL), who are social workers, psychologists or lawyers, but not qualified forensic investigators. In many cases, GALs fail to represent their clients—the children. The GAL assigned to Bonita Shain’s son never met him. In Anne D’Angelo’s case, the GAL never spoke in court. Second, with no juries—and protected by a cloak of secrecy—family courts are bastions of extraordinary power where one person is judge, jury and executioner. Evidence of abuse is suppressed while, as in Toni, Anne and Bonita’s cases, no evidence of the mothers’ presumed role in alienation is sought. Third, bias and traditional stereotyping of women’s roles is heightened in high-conflict custody cases, where judges commonly scrutinize a mother’s parenting practices while viewing a father’s sole act of seeking custody as proof of parental commitment and skills.
Although an Association of Family Conciliation Courts’ 1990 study shows child sexual abuse allegations are made in less than two percent of contested divorces involving child custody, that figure still represents thousands of molested children. They are protected by mothers like Toni, Anne and Bonita, who find themselves mired in years of expensive litigation in courts that show neither sympathy for them nor compassion for their children. Beyond losing custody, mothers are often stripped of their rights when the costly child support they are slapped with make it impossible for them to also pay the hourly fees of supervised visitation centers. In the process, children’s rights to fair treatment and justice as well as the preservation of the maternal-child bond are being violated.
Toni’s daughters, now ages nine and ten, are prohibited any contact with their mother, but they also cannot have contact with any member of their maternal family.
In hiding, Bonita Shain’s children missed holidays and birthdays with everyone they knew back home, while their father led a normal life and “went to ball games,” Bonita says. “This is not surprising since he was not asking for custody; he wanted his sister to have the children as long as they are not with me or my family.” The hope to one day restore her children’s stolen life was shattered in June 2003 when the boys were captured in
Anne D.'s former husband was a Children's Rights Council official and now sits on a panel to "redesign divorce" in Ms. D's state with a Judge whom, Ms. D. claims, is aware of the rape evidence against Mr. D.. Furthermore, in 2002 he was appointed by that State Governor to a committee to recommend changes in laws regarding the courts' handling of custody cases.
Says Anne D’Angelo, “I have met several mothers who lost custody to very abusive ex-husbands. Among them are a nurse, an engineer, a teacher, and an attorney. We are well educated and articulate. We are not on welfare. We are not alcoholics or drug users, and we do not have a history of physical or mental illness. We are good mothers.”
These are good mothers whose only chance to save their children is to defy the court and run for their lives.