New York City, NY

The Tragic Failure of Family Court

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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There are injustices in life that shake one’s faith in humanity. Witnessing a mother’s efforts to beseech family court to save her toddler-age daughter from a pedophile father defines that description. Irrespective of credible forensic evidence and testimonies by medical doctors and therapists, the horror of child sexual abuse and domestic violence is simply disregarded. The mother is deemed problematic. The father somehow has become the hapless victim of parental alienation.

When a mother is characterized as insidiously maneuvering to undermine and damage the child’s relationship with the father by falsely accusing the father of child abuse, this is known as parental alienation.

Coined by psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the early 1980s, Parental Alienation Syndrome posited that vengeful mothers brainwash their children to support allegations of child abuse in order to punish ex-husbands by limiting paternal access. Gardiner discredited claims of sexual abuse, suggesting that the majority of these claims are in fact exemplary of PAS. Although Gardner’s theory (and perverse views regarding pedophilia) has been on the receiving end of numerous rebuttals from the American Psychiatric Association and the legal community, and Gardner is noted to have advocated against mandatory reporting laws for child abuse, PAS is widely used as a defense in custody battles.

The reality is that child sexual abuse allegations are extremely rare in custody disputes (Thoennes & Tjaden, 1990) and 50% to 70% (Faller, 1998) of allegations made, prove to be valid.

Nevertheless, according to a study written by a professor of clinical law Joan S. Meier from George Washington University and funded through a grant from the National Institute of Justice, in most cases in which mothers allege child abuse by fathers, the mother loses custody. Even worse, Meir’s study of 4,388 custody cases revealed that when parental alienation is alleged by a father (as opposed to the father not alleging parental alienation) the court system is more than twice as likely to disbelieve the mother’s claims of either child abuse or domestic violence.

When child sexual abuse is involved, only 1 out of every 51 cases was believed when a father accused the mother of alienation.

As crazy as it sounds, Meier’s study affirms that mothers have it much worse in custody battles when they allege abuse. The ubiquitous claim of parental alienation discredits mothers for having the courage to protect their children from dangerous fathers. To say the least, this is a troubling trend.

As a clinical social worker and trauma therapist for over three decades in New York it's disillusioning, but no surprise that the judicial system continues to fail at protecting women and children. The Guardian ad litem attorney for the child is devoid of legal principles. Assigned psychiatric evaluators are little more than puppets for the court. Likewise, the incompetence of The Administration of Children’s Services (ACS) defining high-risk situations as low risk and encouraging family mediation, and recommending unsupervised visitation in cases of traumatic abuse, is maddening. It’s the preservation of the family that is touted, even when there is no family worth preserving.

Sadly, this is not an anomaly. Enabling abusers is a universal reality.However, when it’s the justice system itself responsible for licensing criminal conduct, a greater threat is implied.

Women and children are still not believed or afforded adequate protection under the law. A case in point is beautiful Kyra Patricia Franchetti whose life was cut short at two years old when her father shot her in the back and then set the house on fire and killed himself. In spite of the mother’s vehement efforts to persuade Child Protective Services and a forensic evaluator that supervised visitation, not shared custody was crucial to her daughter’s protection, her claims were dismissed. Kyra’s mother Jacqueline has devoted her life to improving child safety in custody cases. Her advocacy for policy changes in custody laws led to the introduction of House Resolution 72, to make child safety the top priority in custody and divorce cases.

Yet witnessing my client and her daughter navigate not just a disastrous, but a morally depraved system ensures me that these rulings are not enforced. The system has failed children. Protective mothers are silenced, jailed, bankrupted, stigmatized, and vilified. This reality is not just a tragic indictment of the legal system. It's a heartbreaking indicator of how we all, as a society, have failed.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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