Custody Crisis: Why Moms Are Punished in Court
Talk to mothers, divorce lawyers, and child advocates and you'll hear tales of a family court system that's badly broken.
Gina Kaysen Fernandes: To an outsider, Linda Marie Sacks had the perfect life. Her husband was rich, and they lived in a huge home in Daytona Beach, FL, where she spent her days shuttling her girls to school and various activities. Linda Marie describes herself as a "squeaky clean soccer mom" who "lived my life for my children." Behind that façade, Linda Marie says she married a monster -- a man who verbally and emotionally attacked her for years and sexually abused their two young daughters.
When she finally left him and tried to take her girls with her, she encountered a new monster -- family court. Rather than protecting Linda Marie and her two young daughters from a sexual predator, a family court judge denied Linda Marie custody and put her daughters into the hands of their sexually abusive father.
Talk to mothers, divorce lawyers, and child advocates and you'll hear tales of a family court system that's badly broken. It's one that routinely punishes women for coming forward with allegations of abuse by denying them custody of their children. Instead of protecting children from abusers and predators, the court often gives sole custody to the abusive parent, say child advocates. Mothers who tell judges their children are being molested or beaten are accused of lying and are punished for trying to intervene. Some are thrown in jail for trying to keep their kids from seeing an abusive parent. Women, many of whom have few financial resources at their disposal, are often at the mercy of a court system that is not designed to handle domestic violence.
Linda Marie first suspected something was wrong in 2002 when she received a shocking phone call from a school administrator. Her 7-year-old daughter was acting out sexually, with knowledge beyond her years. A short time later, the Sunday school teacher reported overhearing Linda Marie's daughter saying, "I suck my dad's penis." She received more phone calls from school about her little girl using Barbie dolls to simulate oral sex with a boy in her class. "I was very concerned, these are alarming red flags," said Linda Marie.
She consulted family therapists who also expressed alarm and concern, but failed to report these claims to an abuse hotline. In one of the therapy sessions, the oldest daughter drew a picture that depicted her father as an erect penis on legs. Linda Marie says she once walked in on her husband wiping her daughters' vaginas in the bathroom before school, "because he told me he wanted them to be fresh." When Linda Marie confronted her husband, he ignored and dismissed the allegations.
After 11 years of marriage, Linda Marie filed for divorce in 2004. Armed with detailed documentation, she believed the judge would grant her sole custody of her two daughters for their protection. "I was sheltered. I didn't know I had stepped into a national crisis in the courts," said Linda Marie, who spent tens of thousands of dollars in a legal battle that ended in the loss of her parental rights. Linda Marie has only seen her children during supervised visits for a total of 54 hours over the past two and a half years. "I'm one of the lucky moms," she said, choking back tears. "Some bonds are severed forever. I'm thankful for my two hours a month."
Some mothers like Lorraine Tipton of Oconto Falls, WI, have served jail time as the result of contentious custody arraignments. In November, a judge sentenced Lorraine to 30 days behind bars because she didn't force her 11-year-old daughter to follow the court's order to live every other week with her abusive father. "She's terrified of going; she has night terrors and severe anxiety," said Lorraine.
Her ex, Craig Hensberger, was arrested three times for domestic violence and once for child abuse. His criminal record also includes two DUI arrests, one of which happened while driving with his daughter. The court ordered Hensberger into rehab and demanded "absolute sobriety," but his daughter claims he still drinks excessively when she visits.
Hensberger admitted in court that he still continues to drink, but the judge punished Lorraine instead for trying to protect her child. "My abuser is continuing his abuse of me and my daughter with the help of the court," said Lorraine, who spent three days locked up until her daughter made the heart-wrenching decision to return to her father's home so her mother could be released from jail. "He can't get to me physically. The only way he knows how to hurt me is to take my child away."
"What we are seeing amounts to a civil rights crisis," says attorney and legal writer Michael Lesher, who co-authored the book From Madness To Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running from the Family Courts -- and What Can Be Done about It. Many judges and court-appointed guardians act above the law with apparent impunity, he argues.
"There's no hearing, no evidence, no notice -- they can take your child away from you," Lesher tells momlogic. If a mother raises concerns or openly discusses child abuse in court, she typically ends up being the one under investigation. "Mom is guilty until proven innocent," he says.
A family court judge with the Los Angeles Superior Court refused momlogic's request for an interview to respond to these allegations.
Unlike criminal court, family court does not rely on criminal investigators to gather evidence in an alleged child abuse case. Instead, the court appoints family advocates known as "guardian ad litem," or GAL, who are expected to investigate the abuse allegations and make their recommendation in the best interest of the child. GALs are sometimes licensed psychologists, social workers, or attorneys who are not necessarily trained in evaluating sexual abuse or domestic violence. They have the judge's ear, and their opinions can alter a child's future. There are no juries and there's no mandate for legal representation. In fact, most women end up representing themselves because they can't afford the attorney fees.
Most moms don't want to take the case to criminal court because they prefer to keep the matter private. Legal experts contend the evidence in sexual abuse cases isn't typically strong enough to hold up in criminal court to overcome the threshold of "beyond a reasonable doubt." While the bar is set much lower for proving evidence in family court, advocates argue Child Protective Services frequently doesn't want to get involved. "If there's a custody battle going on, CPS won't touch it," says Irene Weiser of the advocacy group StopFamilyViolence.org.
There's no doubt fathers play a critical role in a child's life, and in most cases, are equally loving and capable parents who deserve custody. However, studies find when a wife accuses her husband of abuse, more than half the time, she faces a counter-accusation of "parental alienation syndrome," or PAS. Although PAS is not a medically recognized disorder, divorce attorneys often successfully argue that it emerges when a parent brainwashes a child into thinking the other parent is the enemy.
The psychiatrist Richard Gardner, who first coined the phrase "parental alienation syndrome" in 1987, has written more than one hundred articles on the subject, but has offered no scientific data to support his theory. While it's not considered a certifiable medical condition, PAS is widely accepted in the legal community.
"Parental Alienation unequivocally, categorically exists, and it's a form of child abuse," says author and forensic consultant Dean Tong. While he believes more studies need to be done to validate PAS, "it does exist, anecdotally speaking," he says. As an expert witness, Tong has been called a "fathers' rights prostitute" for his work in court clashes. But he also testifies for mothers who are fighting to appeal unfavorable rulings. For Tong, it's about using forensics to find the truth. "I'm not here to protect guys who are guilty," he says.
In years past, mothers were typically considered the "protective parent" in custody decisions when courts relied on the "Tender Years Doctrine," which states that children under the age of 13 should live with their mothers. Recently, several courts have ruled that doctrine violated the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th amendment, and replaced it with the "Best Interests of the Children" doctrine. It's a huge victory for the increasingly powerful Fatherhood Movement that contends dads are systematically alienated from their children after a divorce.
Tong argues the current legal climate continues to put fathers on the receiving end of false allegations. "It's handcuffs first, speak later," said Tong, who experienced that firsthand. In 1985, Tong's ex-wife falsely accused him of sexually abusing his 3-year-old daughter. He spent time in jail and went through "a year of hell" trying to prove his innocence. While Tong was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, he never regained custody of his kids, and remained under supervised visitation for years. Tong became a self-taught expert on the subject of family rights and abuse accusations. He has written three books, including Elusive Innocence: Survival Guide for the Falsely Accused.
"There's an assumption that maintaining a child's relationship with the father is a good idea -- even if the father is abusive," says Stop Family Violence's Weiser, who believes when the overburdened court system is unable to sort out a custody conflict, it relies on misogyny. She argues there are many judges, GALs, and evaluators who believe that women are inherently vindictive and will lie to get a leg up in a custody battle. "We see it over and over again in family court, where judges or professionals don't believe the violence is occurring," Weiser says.
"All we have is 'he said, she said.' Who's telling the truth? That's up to the judge," says Tong, who believes the justice system isn't working for either side. "The system is not doing a good job interviewing kids, we're still in the dark ages there," says Tong, who thinks there needs to be more formal education and training for the professionals, including judges who are hearing child custody cases.
According to the American Bar Association, child abuse allegations in custody disputes are rare -- occurring in only six percent of cases. The majority of those accusations are substantiated. In terms of false allegations, fathers are more likely than mothers to intentionally lie (21 percent, compared to 1.3 percent). In fact, abusive parents are more likely to seek sole custody than nonviolent ones, and are successful about 70 percent of the time.
After three years of litigation, Linda Marie Sacks says she was no match for her ex-husband's financial resources and powerful connections. "He was buying his way through the courtroom." Despite 10 calls into the abuse hotline by licensed professionals, Linda Marie's ex-husband still claimed she was making false allegations of abuse to alienate his children, and the judge believed him. Linda Marie was kicked out of her home and put on supervised visitation with her two daughters, who are now ages 10 and 12. "The judge legally kidnapped my daughters and won't give them back," she said.
In some extreme cases, a custody decision will be reversed, which is what happened to Joyce Murphy. The San Diego mother was charged with kidnapping after she took her daughter out of state, away from the girl's father, because she believed he was a child molester. The father, Henry Parson, accused Joyce of parental alienation and she lost custody. "Despite my pleas for protection to the police and the DA and the family court representatives, and even psychologists, Mr. Parson was able to convince them and the community at large that he was the victim, and I was just an angry, embittered, divorced woman," explained Joyce.
Six years later, Parson was caught in the act and pleaded guilty to six counts of child abuse, which included oral sex with a child, molestation, possessing child porn, and using a child to make porn. After Parson received a six-year prison sentence, Joyce told reporters that family court's only good decision in her case was granting her full permanent custody of her daughter after her ex-husband was jailed.
Lorraine, the Wisconsin mom who was jailed for protecting her daughter, knows her daughter's nightmare will continue for the rest of her childhood. "He's never going to stop, it's never going to end until she's 18." Linda Marie says she's putting every penny towards her legal efforts to win back custody of her daughters. "I will never stop fighting for my girls. I know one day justice will prevail."
Critics argue that not only is the family court system broken, it was never designed to deal with issues like child custody. The goal is to develop solutions that are in the best interest of the child. "Unfortunately when judges and guardians start thinking of themselves as super government, all sorts of abuses will occur," says attorney and author Lesher.
Activists are working towards making reforms through legislation. "The heartbreaking challenge is that there's not one quick fix," says Stop Family Violence's Weiser. "This is a war -- it's very ugly, it's bloody, and very bitter," concludes Tong.