He said, she said

New documentary shines light on bitter custody fights in Sacramento region, draws fire from fathers’-rights group

Karen Anderson and her son Jeff, who’ve been involved in a high-conflict custody battle for many years, are featured in a new documentary, Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories, <i>airing throughout October on public television.</i>

Karen Anderson and her son Jeff, who’ve been involved in a high-conflict custody battle for many years, are featured in a new documentary, Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories, airing throughout October on public television.

Photo By Larry Dalton

For data on the California family courts, view the Judicial Council of California’s Web page listing its studies on the subject: www.courtinfo.ca.gov/reference/4_18fam_custvis.htm.

If you were watching KVIE last Wednesday night, you’re already familiar with the stories of eight children whose family-court battles were documented in a film titled Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories. Produced by a documentary team from New York, and shown on 80 percent of PBS stations nationwide, Children’s Stories focused on Central California kids who became the subject of high-conflict custody fights between their divorcing parents. Filmmakers Dominique Lasseur and Catherine Tatge explored a particularly sticky and dramatic subset of custody cases in which the children’s mothers lost some or all custody after accusing their exes of sexual or physical abuse. The mothers, in turn, were accused of “parental alienation”—of trying to destroy the relationship between the child and the father. These children ended up in the care of their fathers by court order, though many of them eventually left home (some are staying in undisclosed locations) and since have joined the locally formed Courageous Kids Network, a speakers bureau of young adults who attend domestic-violence conferences.

The film brings up a number of hot-button issues that have driven attempts at family-court reform and polarized divorcing mothers and fathers in California for years. Even the film itself has been attacked for leading viewers to assume that all protective mothers are mistreated in court and that all abusers are fathers.

In California, most divorcing couples make their way through the family-court system smoothly, forming a cooperative custody plan and sticking with it, but a small minority of families spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and years battling one another in court.

These difficult, high-conflict custody cases rarely show up in newspaper reports, partly because papers don’t want to wade into issues of “he said, she said,” explained Richard Ducote, a Louisiana attorney, who showed up at an early screening of the film at the KVIE station. “There’s a war going on, and it’s between the abusers, the victims and the protectors,” he added.

For Children’s Stories, the filmmakers picked a few cases for review, read up on them and interviewed the mothers and the children, as well as a number of legal experts, domestic-violence counselors and children’s advocates.

Based on these cases, the film argues that family courts routinely assume that allegations of physical or sexual abuse are fabricated by women trying to alienate their children from the fathers. The filmmakers even published a set of supporting statistics that they attribute to the National Network to End Domestic Violence. One claims that in a study of approximately 9,000 divorces, “child sexual abuse allegations were made in less than 2% of contested divorces involving child custody.” Another states: “In custody cases where the mother alleges battery by the father, the father is awarded custody two-thirds of the time.”

No responses from the fathers are included in the film.

The documentary kicks off a yearlong KVIE initiative called Focus on Health, which addresses global public health, cancer, obesity and AIDS. According to Sheryl Brown, marketing communications manager for KVIE, this film was the second in a series by Lasseur and Tatge. The first Breaking the Silence focused on abused women, and that film led to an interest in how domestic violence affects children.

According to one of the mothers, identified on film as “Jeff’s mom,” Lasseur found the Courageous Kids Network after hearing members speak at a domestic-violence conference in New York.

In the film, no last names are used, but Karen Anderson, “Jeff’s mom,” is a familiar local advocate for family-court reform. She attended the preview of the film as well.

“I thought it was great,” Anderson said in an interview. “I thought I was immune to the pain of all this, but about four times, I thought I was going to cry.”

Anderson is the mother of three children, two of whom are still in the custody of their father.

Anderson, who’s also a counselor at the El Dorado Women’s Center, would like to see a number of reforms to address biases in family courts. They include the adoption of an oversight board, something similar to a grand jury that could review the judicial process in high-conflict cases. She also would like to see custody cases that include accusations of abuse moved to a separate “family violence” court full of experts who understand the psychology of abuse.

“Child abuse does not belong adjudicated in family court,” Anderson said.

Finally, Anderson believes that child-support payments should be determined based on something besides how much time a child spends in the custody of each parent. “That would probably end 50 percent of contested cases,” she said. The current situation “makes a child a financial commodity,” she added.

Mark Rosenthal, who refers to himself as the man behind the curtain for the organization RADAR: Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting, responded to the film in a press release, saying that the documentary “has the objective of stampeding legislators into passing a law to fix a non-existent problem.” He further asserted that the “producers of Breaking the Silence have set out to promote negative stereotypes that have the effect of removing dads from their kids’ lives.”

Rosenthal’s main concern is that the film leads to a false impression that only men perpetuate violence against children. In an interview, Rosenthal said that he’s seen the media repeatedly address the victimization of women, but rarely mention the fact that women abuse or neglect children slightly more often than men, according to some studies, including those by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The filmmakers responded to RADAR with data from a variety of sources, including the Harvard School of Public Health: “Family courts are reported to often ignore risks posed by abusive men in awarding child custody and visitation.” They also quoted the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, which has said that “abusive parents commonly blame their partners for the impact on the children.”

The filmmakers claim they didn’t begin their project with a specific agenda. A published statement claims, “We had no preconceived notions about the issue. … The finished documentary is simply a result of where countless hours of extensive research and interviews took us.”