The Scandal In Our Own Backyard By Talia Carner

There is something bad happening to our children in family courts today that is causing them more harm than drugs, more harm than crime and even more harm than child molestation,” said Judge Watson L. White from Cobb County, Georgia, Superior Court.

In researching for my book, Puppet Child, I discovered that “something bad” to be the judges, especially when it comes to adjudicating allegations of child sexual abuse.

In Clarke v. Cowles in California, eight-year-old Loren (not her real name) told her caseworker and later her psychological evaluator, “Daddy licks his fingers before he puts them in my vagina.” The first report was suppressed by the judge, the latter was never presented at the trial. The father was awarded full custody while the mother received supervised visitations on the unproven assumption that she had brainwashed her daughter. Years later, after the girl wrote repeatedly to her caseworker about molestation, a judge refused to hear the evidence because the question of sexual abuse had been decided five years before.

Loren is only one child out of thousands being handed to their abusers. According to The American Judges Foundation, in 70 percent of cases in which abusive men ask for custody, they succeed in gaining full or joint custody. This national scandal is made possible by the secrecy within the Family Court System and by public disbelief in the scope of the problem. The very system designed to safeguard helpless children has become a national disgrace as injustice has reached epidemic proportions.

Whatever you have ever known about democracy becomes irrelevant at the gate to family court. There, one person is judge, jury and executioner. Paradoxically, a family court judge is the one professional in the courtroom who is not required to be trained in domestic violence and child abuse. As a result, wrapped in their own mix of prejudices, religious beliefs, or misguided assumptions, all too many judges are ignorant about the dynamics of family abuse, ignorant about the nature of child molestation, and ignorant about the ways in which an abuser manipulates the courtroom as the arena where he can hand a woman the final blow by taking her children away.

Although studies such as the one by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts Research in Denver—an organization which mothers ‘ groups claim is biased against women—shows that at least two thirds of sexual abuse allegations made by a child were proven to be substantiated (the one third unsubstantiated are not necessarily false.) Yet a study by the California Protective Parents Association found that 91 percent of fathers identified by their children as sexual predators received full or partial unsupervised custody—while in 54 percent of these same cases the non-abusing mother was placed on supervised visitations.

How is that possible? Here are some of the more glaring errors the courts perpetuate:

Viewing children as property. When the crime of sexual abuse is committed upon a child who lives next door, the perpetrator is subject to harsh jail punishment. The same abuse committed upon one ‘ s own child is likely to result in a father getting sole custody. Behind this unfair ruling is the lingering feudal tradition that regards children as the property of their fathers.

Mistaking controlling men for loving fathers. Used to getting their way and given to expressions of anger, controlling men fight hard in the court they regard as a boxing ring. Having seen too many men walk away from their children, judges often mistake for love a father’s unwillingness to let go of the child who has become both a sexual object and a weapon against a mother trying to get away from her husband’s control.

Favoring the Parental Alienation Syndrome theory. PAS maintains that a child has been brainwashed to give false testimony. Not listed in the American Psychiatric Association manual, PAS is refuted and considered bogus theory by nationally recognized academic and clinical institutions—and by a 1999 Congressional act (VAWA). In fact, the lone advocate who coined the term, Richard Gardner, has also written that “pedophilia is natural.” Nevertheless, increasingly, legions of children are removed from their mothers ‘ care under the PAS theory.

Tolerance of child sexual abuse. A Tennessee judge granted visitation rights to Ralph Gonnella two weeks after he had been arrested for taking sexually explicit photographs of his seven-year-old son. In California , Manuel Saavedra, a convicted sex offender who had pleaded guilty to lewd conduct with a child was awarded custody of his two daughters. All across America , convicted pedophiles—a crime known for its high rate of recidivism —are given access to their children.

Refusing to stigmatize a man as a pedophile. A 1996 report by The American Psychological Association states, “women seldom make false reports of child abuse or battering.” Yet in case after case, when a father is found to be sexually abusive, judges suppress evidence. While many judges, many of whom are fathers, do not truly believe that sexual abuse exists, they also do not wish to venture into the criminal arena of pedophilia due to overlapping jurisdiction between civil and criminal courts.

Not following the law. In demanding burden of proof of sexual molestation that supersedes the required “preponderance of evidence” and instead seeking the criminal definition of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” judges often demand dates, times or witnesses that are impossible for a child to provide. Interestingly, the same judges demand no proof when speculating that at the roots of the sexual abuse complaint is the mother’s coaching the child.

Misogyny. In Virginia , Kathy Wade was told by the judge handing Kathy ‘ s two-year-old daughter to the sexually abusive father, “This is what you get when you don ‘ t have a lawyer.” In Florida , Judge Paul Marko told Marianne Price: “The singles’ bars are full of guys… you go and find one.” In Michigan , Judge Gregory Pittman ordered a couple shackled together after the woman complained that her former husband had violated the order of protection. Routinely, American women are denied the right to due process, are subject to ex parte hearings, and are victims of perjury or illegal out-of-state jurisdictions.

Through it all, children are at a disadvantage because they are dependent upon mothers with no or poor legal representation and who are short on financial resources to wage protracted legal battles and appeals. (Professionals in the field report increasing support for men from well-financed fathers ‘ groups.) Moreover, men, poised and collected and surrounded by a legal team, “look good” in court when compared with frightened, distraught mothers, whom judges often view as hysterical, paranoid and vindictive. Yet all across the nation, behind every case in which a woman’s constitutional rights are being ignored in family court there are children needing protection. Instead, they receive a life sentence without parole.

Public disbelief guards the system from exposure. There are child services, therapists, and legal guardians who commit atrocious mistakes. But ultimately, the untrained judges are the ones responsible for saving the children. While I met compassionate family court judges, the shocking overall picture of injustice indicates that they are in the minority. Until the public grasps the scope of the scandal in our own backyard and holds judges accountable for the grand scale in which children are being removed from the custody of good mothers to be placed with pedophiles, we are facing a national shame of catastrophic proportions.

Talia Carner, a novelist and an advocate for child victims of the legal system, is the author of Puppet Child, a legal drama about a mother trying to save her daughter from the legal system’s justice