Over the weekend of January 9th – 11th, 2009, I attended the 6th Annual Battered Mothers Custody Conference in Albany, NY. I had also attended the previous five conferences. Each conference was organized by my partner, Dr. Mo Hannah, a professor of psychology at Siena College, near Albany.
I have been a political activist all my life. I grew up in a family of political activists, and I have devoted my entire life, as my parents did, to making the world a better place. During my journey, I have learned much that is deplorable about our government and its institutions. Yet even I had a hard time believing the cruelty and injustice of the family court system toward battered mothers and their children, which this conference is dedicated to exposing. Today, I am a believer.
The stories I heard each year at the conference go something like this:
I was in an abusive marriage and finally found the courage to leave. I was living in fear of my husband but afraid to leave. I didn’t know what he would do to me and I had no means to live on my own. But, when I discovered that he was abusing our daughter, I knew I had no choice. I came to the shelter and I filed for divorce.
In the course of the divorce hearing, when I told the judge of the abuse that my daughter and I suffered at my husband’s hands, he seemed skeptical. Although he seemed to understand that there was some abuse, he said that he did not see a “pattern” of abuse and thought I was “overreacting.” I was accused of “parental alienation,” meaning he thought that I was trying to keep my child away from her father out of vindictiveness. As a result, my husband was given custody of our daughter and I was given supervised visitation.
When they came to get my daughter and bring her to her father, she tried to hold onto me and she cried and begged me to not let her go. I tried not to cry and told her I would do everything I could. When she left, I did to cry, and I still cannot stop crying. How can they prevent me from protecting my daughter? How can I survive knowing what she is suffering at the hands of her abuser, and I am not allowed to help her?
You can hear some of these mothers telling their stories at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5viwjaIorU8
One such story at this year’s conference was told by Jennifer Collins (http://americanchildrenunderground.blogspot.com/). Jennifer is a 22 year old woman who survived this kind of experience as a child. When she told her mother that her father was hurting her and her brother, her mother, Holly, told this to the judge. The judge told Holly that she was “overreacting,” probably because she was abused herself as a child. Jennifer, who was seven years old at the time, and her brother were taken from their mother and given to their father. Jennifer described the abuse in her father’s home including the time her father broke her brother’s skull by knocking his head against the wall. Holly was given supervised visitation. At one visit, when Jennifer told her mother that her father was hitting her and showed her mother the bruises, the supervisor told Jennifer that she cannot talk to her mother about that. After 18 months, Jennifer and her brother snuck out of their father’s home and found their way to their mother’s house. Their mother took the kids and ran. Eventually, she was discovered in the Netherlands. The US demanded Holly’s extradition in order to prosecute her for child kidnapping. For three years, she fought the extradition while she and her kids lived in a Dutch refugee camp with refugees from Somalia and other repressive governments. After three years, the Dutch government granted them asylum.
Jennifer is now a 22-year old adult who travels throughout the United States speaking out against family court injustice. She has formed an organization of adult children who have “aged out” of the court system’s jurisdiction. The name of her organization is “Children Against Court Appointed Child Abuse – CA3” (www.ca3cacaca.blogspot.com/ ). A similar organization called Courageous Kids (www.courageouskids.net) was formed several years earlier by other adult child victims. Several members of the Courageous Kids group were at this and previous conferences.
For many who hear about these travesties the question is, why? Why would the courts respond to domestic violence victims this way? The question of “why” is always difficult to answer because those running the courts, and judges, like other abusers, deny the abuse and therefore see no need to explain their actions.
The most important thing allies of abused women and children can do for them is to keep on believing them. It took a very long time for the criminal courts to believe the victims of domestic violence or rape. They would often blame the victim or dismiss the case as a “domestic situation,” telling the parties to go home and resolve their issues. This has changed somewhat in the criminal courts over the past two decades, largely due to the women’s and domestic violence movements. But the family courts still have a long way to go.
In custody situations, the presumption once was that the mother would get custody because she was the primary care giver for the children. That has now changed. In the overwhelming majority of cases the mother is still the primary care giver but the courts have changed from the presumption that the mother should have custody to a presumption that it is better for the children if both parents have equal access to the children. This is fine when there are two loving and caring parents, but when the children are used as pawns in on-going disputes between the divorcing parents or when there is domestic violence or child abuse involved, equal access and joint custody are the exact wrong solutions.
We live in a country facing tremendous economic and social pressures, a society that glorifies violence and remains in a state of almost perpetual war. These features have contributed to the epidemic of domestic abuse we see today. However, family courts continue in their refusal to acknowledge this reality, and judges with no understanding of domestic violence continue to re-victimize battered mothers and their children with their disastrous court decisions.
A woman who has been abused is not only hurt physically but also mentally and emotionally. Many display symptoms similar to the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms that soldiers returning from war zones exhibit. When these women go before a judge and are confronted with the possibility that their children may be taken from them and given to their abuser, they often become emotional. The abusive partner, on the other hand, may come across as cool, calm, and logical. While the mother’s emotion may be taken as a negative, if the father shows emotion it is usually viewed far more sympathetically as if it shows he is a good father and cares about his children. The judge may, therefore, see him as the better parent.
All through the family courts there is a double standard that works against mothers. If she is emotional, it's a negative; if she is not emotional, it's also a negative. If she has a job, she cares more about her work than about her children; if she doesn't work for a living, she's seen as unable to adequately provide for her children. If she does not fight to keep her children away from the abuser, she is accused of "failure to protect"; if she does fight for them, she is seen as trying to alienate the children from their father or not being open to his having "equal access" to them. Protective mothers find themselves in a Catch 22 hell in family court.
Parental Alienation Syndrome
The rationale often used for taking children away from a protective mother and giving them to an abusive father is called "parental alienation syndrome" (PAS). Parental alienation syndrome is the invention of an anti-Semitic, quack, now-deceased psychiatrist named Richard Gardner. PAS is based on pseudo-science and not accepted as a credible syndrome by any of the relevant psychiatric or psychological associations. While it is possible for one parent to speak badly of the other in the course of divorce proceedings and probably happens often, to claim that this is a psychological syndrome, a "disorder" that makes its sufferer an unfit parent is both fraudulent and absurd. Gardner actually claimed that PAS does more damage to children than real physical and sexual abuse.
PAS is almost never used against men. It is not uncommon for abusive fathers to claim that they are not abusive and that the mother is only saying so to discredit them in the course of the custody hearing. According to an American Psychological Association's report of a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s study, “Fathers who batter the mother are twice as likely to seek sole physical custody of their children than are nonviolent fathers.” Various other studies report that these men will get custody in anywhere from 33% to 70% of the cases, depending on the study. In these cases PAS is typically used to support their position.
The Father Supremacy Movement
PAS is championed by the so called Fathers Rights movement (FRs), also known as the Father Supremacy movement. These groups claim that men are as likely as women to be victims of domestic violence--this despite U.S. Dept. of Justice statistics that show women as the victims of domestic violence in 86% of cases. FRs claim that most reports of domestic violence are false and that these false claims, rather than domestic violence, are the real problem. However, numerous studies have shown that false claims of rape or domestic violence are uncommon. The Father Supremacy groups direct batterers towards legal services that will help them build a PAS argument in their cases and teach them how to use their typically superior financial positions to harass their former partners through the court system, driving them into bankruptcy in their quest to hurt these women the most--by taking their children away from them.
Many men who have gone through a divorce, including this author, are repulsed by the belligerent, vindictive, anti-women tone of these organizations and their many web sites. These groups are organized remnants of the fight against equality for women. They are throwbacks to a time when women and children were considered the man’s property. These men become incensed when “their” woman stands up to them on behalf of herself and her children. This anger is what drives these groups: one of the last vestiges of male supremacy in our society. Unfortunately, these men all too often find a receptive ear in the family court system.
The case of Barry Goldstein
Sometimes family court judges go so far as to discipline lawyers for vigorously defending protective mothers. Such is what happened to attorney Barry Goldstein, who has defended many victims of domestic violence and has been a tireless advocate for them inside and outside the courtroom.
Barry was, for awhile, the attorney for Genia Shockome, a protective mother living in Dutchess County, New York. Genia is a Russian born engineer whose ex-husband, Tim Shockome, had two prior foreign brides before he married Genia. They had two children together before Genia filed for divorce and custody of the children, stating that he had been abusing her for years. At one point, he was convicted in criminal court for harassing her, but in family court, he was able to use Parental Alienation against Genia, and he eventually won sole custody of the children. The case was described in an article in Newsweek magazine (http://www.newsweek.com/id/35157).
At one point, while 8 month pregnant, Genia was appearing on her own behalf in front of the family court judge, who ruled that her ex-husband could move away with the children to Texas. After Genia persisted in objecting to the judge's ruling thinking she was establishing a record for an appeal, the judge ordered her jailed for one month. Barry then posted an article on an internet blog criticizing the judge’s action.
In retaliation, this same judge filed attorney disciplinary charges against Barry, claiming that his statements on the blog were false. The appellate court of the State of New York convicted Barry of this and other charges and suspended Barry's license to practice law for an astonishing five years. The message this sends to other attorneys in these cases is don't defend your clients too strongly and you don't have first amendment rights to speak to the public if the court disagrees with what you are saying.
At the Sixth Battered Mothers Custody Conference, a resolution supporting Barry Goldstein and condemning the decision of the appellate court was proposed and passed. The text of the resolution, signed by the Battered Mothers Custody Conference, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and NOW New York State, was sent to the justices of the appellate court, the New York State Attorney General and the Governor of New York.
The Progressive Movement, Domestic Violence, and Child Custody
The issues addressed by the Battered Mothers Custody Conference that are affecting thousands of women today are not typically addressed by the progressive movement in this country but ought to be. Some may believe that these issues are personal, not political. The same justification was used by many progressives in the early days of the women’s movement. Today, however, we understand that much of what is considered personal is political. Those of us who fight for social justice are motivated by the image of a society where there is true equality. We envision a world where people are not driven by economic needs, fear and insecurity, which play a big part in divorce proceedings. In such a society human relations will change; Violence would be an anathema. In such a society, the need of the small elite, who rule today, to divide and conquer, will wither away and equality for all will become the norm. In such a society, the concept of the family will change as will divorce and custody issues. However, the fight to achieve such a society is embodied in each and every struggle for equality and justice--including the struggle on behalf of protective mothers and their children.
The web site for the Battered Mothers Custody Conference is http://www.batteredmotherscustodyconference.org/. I urge those in the peace and justice movement and other progressive causes to go to the web site, consider attending the next conference and to use the weight of your organizations to support women in your community who are facing this abuse from their partner or the family court system.