Parent Trap: Are False Abuse Charges a Common Tactic in Child Custody Battles?
Young, Cathy, Reason
CHILD CUSTODY disputes are some of the bloodiest battlefields in the gender wars--battlefields upon which allegations of spousal and child abuse are widely regarded as a nuclear weapon. But there are two opposite views of this problem. Fathers' advocates claim abuse allegations are routinely used to deny divorced fathers contact with their children and to poison children's minds against their fathers, in what the activists and some psychologists call "parental alienation syndrome." Feminists argue that well-founded accusations of abuse are often dismissed and even turned against the accusing mothers.
The explosive claim that batterers and molesters frequently gain sole custody of their children while protective mothers are branded as liars has gotten a lot of media attention in the last year. In the fall of 2005, PBS broadcast the documentary Breaking the Silence: The Children's Stories, which profiled several children placed in the custody of allegedly abusive fathers and presented these cases as representative of the system's failure. After an outcry from fathers' groups, PBS commissioned a review but eventually declared that the program met the network's standards of fairness and research. (Corporation for Public Broadcasting ombudsman Ken Bode, by contrast, found the film "so totally unbalanced as to fall outside the boundaries of PBS editorial standards.") A year later, Newsweek weighed in with a story in its September 25, 2006, issue, "Fighting Over the Kids," which asserted that many battered mothers were losing custody of their children after being slapped with the "parental alienation" label.
A look at some cases publicized as judicial outrages against women and children shows just how difficult it can be to sort out the truth. A major segment of Breaking the Silence dealt with 16-year-old Fatima Alilire-Loeliger and her mother, Sadia Alilire, who had lost custody of the girl in 1998 to her father, Scott Loeliger, but then regained it. (The mother and daughter appeared under pseudonyms, but their real names were revealed in the subsequent controversy). Men's rights activist Glenn Sacks charged that Alilire, far from being the heroic mother portrayed in the film, was a child abuser herself--a charge he backed up with documents posted on his website. Alilire responded on the website of feminist blogger Trish Wilson, claiming the abuse charges were engineered by her ex-husband with the help of a therapist with whom he had a close personal relationship.
Yet the documents posted by Wilson and Alilire themselves show that Alilire had a history of violence toward her ex-husband and toward his babysitter, and that another therapist with no connection to Loeliger reported Fatima's allegations of physical abuse by her mother. The records generally paint a depressing picture of two parents behaving badly, rather than a case in which a clear line can be drawn between wrongdoer and victim.
The Newsweek story has an equally problematic poster girl in Genia Schockome, a New York woman whose ex-husband, Timothy, received sole custody of their children after a six-year battle. While giving virtually full credence to her allegations of physical abuse by her former husband, the article doesn't mention that after the divorce the father initially had custody of the children nearly half the time and was never accused of abusing them, or that Schockome defied numerous court orders and quit a high-paying job in an apparent attempt to avoid child support payments. As Newsweek went to press, an appellate court rejected Schockome's claim of bias against the judge in her case.
Similar issues have dogged Amy Neustein, a leading activist on behalf of mothers penalized for abuse accusations. Neustein lost custody of her own daughter, Sherry, in 1986 after accusing her former husband, Ozzie Orbach, of sexual abuse--charges repeatedly rejected by the courts and by family service agencies. Her crusade has attracted support not only from feminist groups but from politicians from both major parties; in May 2006, she appeared at a press conference in New York with Jeanine Pirro, Republican candidate for state attorney general, and Democratic congressional candidate Chris Owens. …