Civil Liberties

Parent Trap

Are false abuse charges a common tactic in child custody battles?


Child custodydisputes 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 Alilirethemselves 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. Yet a year earlier, Sherry Orbach, then 24 and a student at Columbia Law School, had published an article in The Jewish Press in New York strongly stating that the only abuse she had suffered was her mother's effort to brainwash her into accusing her father. Orbach wrote, "I, for one, owe my existence as a normal young adult to the family judges, Ohel foster care, and the Legal Aid Society attorney who helped me reunite with my father in the face of considerable opposition in the media." (While Neustein's supporters have insinuated that the article was a fake, Orbach confirmed its authenticity when contacted at her law school email address.)

The bigger picture is as muddy as the individual cases. The Newsweek article, for instance, asserts that "according to one 2004 survey in Massachusetts by Harvard's Jay Silverman, 54 percent of custody cases involving documented spousal abuse were decided in favor of the alleged batterers." But the study, published in The American Journal of Public Health, was based on a nonrepresentative, self-selected sample of 39 women recruited by the Battered Women's Testimony Project. Moreover, the "documentation" of abuse could be nothing more than a restraining order or an affidavit by the woman.

There is also a debate about whether there is such a thing as parental alienation syndrome (PAS), a term coined by controversial Columbia University psychologist Richard Gardner. Breaking the Silence stated that PAS "has been thoroughly debunked by the American Psychological Association." An APA statement issued in response said the organization took no official position on the syndrome but also pointed out that "an APA 1996 Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family noted the lack of data to support so-called 'parental alienation syndrome,' and raised concern about the term's use." It is worth noting that the APA's own stance may have been influenced by politics more than science: The 1996 family violence task force was chaired by psychologist Lenore Walker, whose own writings on "battered woman syndrome" have been widely criticized as shoddy and ideologically driven.

Some people sympathetic to the cause of divorced fathers also object to the idea of parental alienation syndrome, and to Gardner's suggested checklist to identify PAS cases and distinguish them from cases of real abuse. "I am certain that parental alienation—by which one parent poisons a child against the other—is a real and painful problem," writes individualist feminist Wendy McElroy on the History News Network website. "But I am skeptical and cynical about turning every human problem into a psychological Syndrome registered with the APA." In a 2001 review article in The American Journal of Forensic Psychology, Dallas-based psychologist Richard A. Warshak concludes that "there is considerable scientific research which…validates key facets of PAS," though not enough research to support a specific cluster of symptoms.

Whether or not a psychological "syndrome" exists, parental alienation clearly does. Indeed, the film Breaking the Silence itself suggests that Fatima Alilire-Loeliger's father intentionally set her against her mother at one point. And if Amy Neustein's supporters are correct, her estranged daughter presents an egregious and sad case of parental alienation.

Cases of mothers' losing custody to abusive fathers who are skilled at manipulating the system undoubtedly do exist. But the remedies proposed, such as prohibiting judges from penalizing a parent who makes unfounded accusations, would swing the pendulum too far the other way.

Both sides in this controversy—the feminists and the fathers' advocates—see wrongdoing, arrogance, and abuse of power by the courts and the social welfare agencies. In any child custody case, fallible human beings are vested with the power to pry into people's private lives and make decisions that will affect them in an intensely personal and sometimes devastating way. Although there seems to be no good alternative to government power in these cases, public scrutiny can be a check on the judges and social workers. But if this scrutiny is based on women good/men bad gender politics, it will hurt parents and children alike.