This powerful new PBS documentary chronicles the impact of domestic violence on children and the recurring failings of family courts across the country to protect them from their abusers. In stark and often poignant interviews, children and battered mothers tell their stories of abuse at home and continued trauma within the courts. The one-hour special also features interviews with domestic violence experts, attorneys and judges who reveal the disturbing frequency in which abusers are winning custody of their children and why these miscarriages of justice continue to occur.
I have not yet seen the film, which airs in my area on November 20 (I have only just received a copy), but so far, what I have read on the producers' own site does not inspire confidence. For instance, here's how the producers justify their decision to focus solely on women:
Some individuals have expressed concern that the documentary only features the stories of women as the victims of domestic violence. Research shows that "while women are less likely than men to be victims of violent crimes overall, women are five to eight times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner." (U.S. Department of Justice, Violence by Intimates: Analysis of Data on Crimes by Current or Former Spouses, Boyfriends, and Girlfriends, March 1998). If we had featured the stories of one man and five women who had been victims of domestic abuse, statistically we would have overstated the problems of men in this area. Nevertheless, we recognize that men are also victims and men are also sometimes victimized by family courts, but the fact is that many more women are victims. In all cases, the children suffer.
First of all, if the producers had been making a documentary about occupational safety which featured five cases of workplace fatalities one of which involved a woman, would they have been concerned about disproportionate representation of women (since 90% of workers killed on the job are men)? Second, there is a lot of research (including the National Violence Against Women Study) showing a substantially higher percentage of abused men, even as measured by injuries and not just assaultive acts.
The producers' own page of resources contains the assertion, based on the 1990 "Report of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Gender Bias Study Committee," that "fathers who actively seek custody [8.75% of fathers] obtain either primary or joint physical custody over 70% of the time." This is a highly misleading claim which implies that men usually win custody battles when they go to court. In fact, the majority of these cases are uncontested -- the fathers have sole or joint custody with the mother's consent. (See my 1999 Detroit News column for a deconstruction of the claim that fathers have the edge in custody disputes.)
Right now, a lot of the debate over the film has focused on one of the cases it profiles: that of Fatima Loeliger and her mother Sadiya Alilire, who lost custody of Fatima to her father Scott Loeliger in 1998 but eventually regained it. Men's rights advocate Glenn Sacks asserts that Alilire, far from being the heroic and victimized mother she is made out to be in the PBS film, is actually a known child abuser. He has collected a number of documents supporting this claim.
Feminist blogger Trish Wilson replies here and also posts a statement from Alilire (with links) here. Alilire claims that the charges of abuse against her are false and the result of Scott Loeliger's relentless campaign to portray her as an abuser.
At least so far, the most explosive charge on Glenn Sacks's site -- that in August 1998, a juvenile court found Ailire guilty of eight counts of child abuse against Fatima and her younger daughter, and removed both children from her care -- is
Ironically, however, some pretty damning information emerges from the documentation posted by Trish Wilson.
For instance, Wilson's page contains this item:
Court-Ordered Psychological Evaluation By Dr. Karen J. Quinn, Dated 1994. Dr. Quinn describes Scott Loeliger's desire to relocate to Hawaii (which Dr. Quinn recommended be denied), Scott Loeliger's bigamy (he was married to another woman when he married Sadiya.), Sadiya's difficulty adjusting to America and the acrimonous court battles, the endless court records filed by mostly by Scott Loeliger, normal maladaptive behavior on Sadiya's part that anyone subjected to long and intense custody battles would exhibit, Sadiya's bond with Fatima being stronger than Scotts, Scott Loeliger's obsessive fixation with Sadiya's whereabouts (he harassed babysitters to find out where Sadiya was and he followed her through the hospital where she worked. Security guards had to escort her to her car.), Scott Loeliger takes no responsibility for problems between he and Sadiya, Scott Loeliger's "passive-aggressive and paranoid tendencies", and other controlling and manipulative behavior designed to push Sadiya's buttons. Dr. Quinn notes the importance of Fatima identifying with her African cultural descent, and that she is stressed by the post-divorce conflict. Dr. Quinn also recommended that Fatima have more time with her mother, and that the current custody order should be reversed.
If you follow the link, however, you'll find out a few other things as well. Such as, for instance, the fact that Sadia Ailire-Loeliger had a documented history of physical assaults against Scott Loeliger (on one occasion, she was arrested after she attacked him and scratched his neck, and spent a night in jail but the charges were subsequently dropped) and against his babysitter. Or that a therapist who had examined Fatima, Mary McDonald, had reported the girl's allegations of fairly serious physical abuse by her mother (burning Fatima's foot with a match). Or that two of Fatima's day care teachers said the girl fared much better when staying with her father. Or that Sadia is also described as having "hysteroid, paranoid and histrionic" personality elements. In fact, Dr. Quinn emphatically stated that neither parent was blameless and that both "behave abominally (sic) with each other." It should also be noted that the statement about Sadiya having a closer bond with Fatima than Scott came from a 1990 evaluation when Fatima was one year old, and that Dr. Quinn's conclusion was that "a reversal of the custody order should be considered" (in part because she felt that Fatima needed to bond with her mother more).
Incidentally, both Wilson and Alilire claim that the therapist who accused Sadia of child abuse, Randi Gottlieb Robinson, was a closer personal friend of Scott's (and possibly his adulterous lover); neither of them mentions Dr. McDonald's statements three years before Robinson first examined Fatima. Alilire claims that a teenage cousin who accused her of abuse later recanted, but cites no evidence to support that. She also claims that a babysitter who made similar charges, Doris Nava Arellano, had been fired by her for stealing, and that she "initiated and won a small claims action against her for that theft." But the linked form does not say what the judgment was for; Ali-Loeliger (as she is known in the document) is named as the defendant, while Arellano and a male residing at the same address are the plaintiffs. (However, the plaintiffs were ordered to pay Ali-Loeliger $517.78 while she was ordered to pay them $324.)
In a 2002 letter also linked by Alilire, therapist Helen Clarke clearly blames both parents for the situation; she also notes that Fatima "had clearly made dad the bad guy and mom the good guy," which was "the exact opposite position [to what] she held one year previous where dad was the good guy and mom was the bad guy."
Glenn Sacks's version of the events contains some inaccuracies and omissions as well. For instance, he refers to the babysitter's statement as "court testimony," when in fact it was a sworn affidavit and Arellano was never cross-examined. Update: According to a document now posted on Glenn's site, Arellano is on the "anticipated witness list" for juvenile court hearings on July 14 and 15, 1998. There is no proof that she actually testified, however; at the moment, it is Sadiya Alilire's word versus Scott Loeliger's.
Sacks also quotes from a judge's 1991 statement: "I agree that Dr. Loeliger [Scott] appears to be a reasonable man, the most rational of the two...She [Sadia] is extremely intense, inflexible, has a tremendous hatred and animosity that overrides everything else in her life, and it is all directed at him. She is obsessed with this child, having custody and him not having visitation." But here's what's behind that ellipsis, after the description of Scott as appearing to be "the most rational of the two": "But I think he can systematically push every button, and she reacts and over reacts (sic)."
So, what's the bottom line here? It looks to me like the PBS documentary has taken a very complicated and messy situation in which both parents are at fault (though the mother is the only one with a fairly clear record of phsyical violence), and transformed it into a melodrama about a villainous father and a wronged mother. And this melodrama is put into the service of a narrative that vilifies fathers, most explosively suggesting that the majority of fathers who seek custody of their children are abusers.
And that's just wrong.
Update: Wendy McElroy and Mark Rosenthal, here and here, look at the controversy.
Update: Glenn Sacks emails to inform me that the "eight counts of child abuse" charge is corroborated, and sends links to this juvenile court judgment and this explanation of the welfare and institutions code. (If I'm not mistaken, the juvenile court judgment form, currently linked from the second page, wasn't there yesterday. If I somehow overlooked it, my apologies to Glenn; I did email him yesterday some time before putting up my post, but he did not get back to me until today.)
The judgment says that both Fatima and her younger sister were adjudged dependents of the juvenile court under Section 300, subdivisions a, b, c & j of the Welfare and Institutions Code. According to Glenn, "These sections contain physical abuse, neglect and emotional abuse." I assume he is saying that since each of the girls was adjudged a dependent of the juvenile court under four subdivisions of the code, each of these represents a "count of child abuse." But in fact, the codes require a finding either of actual abuse (physical and emotional) and neglect, or of the risk of abuse and neglect. According to Alilire, the actual findings were that she "threw a shoe at Fatima" and "spanked her with a plastic coat hanger" (which Alilire denies).
Another disputed fact is whether Sadiya Alilire-Loeliger's younger daughter was ever removed from her custody as well by court order. Alilire denies this in her statement, and the judgment of the juvenile court (rendered on August 19, 1998) says that while the younger child is also adjudged a dependent of the court, she "is to reside with the mother subject to Family Maintenance Services." However, a March 24, 1998 social worker's report, now also posted at glennsacks.com, says that that both daughters have been removed from the home and that the younger daughter is "currently placed with her father." By the time of the judgment handed down in August, the younger daughter was back in the mother's house, and there are no allegations that Sadiya ever abused her younger daughter.