CUSTODY battles are always wrenching,
particularly when there are allegations
of abuse. For years fathers' rights
groups have complained that men
face a pervasive bias in family
courts, while many feminists have
countercharged that the real bias
is against women. The latest round
of this debate is being waged over
a documentary, ''Breaking the Silence:
Children's Stories," which
has been airing on Public Broadcasting
Service affiliates in the past month.
The film's point
is simple: Children in America
are routinely ripped from their
mothers and given to fathers who
are batterers or molesters. The
women's claims of abuse are not
believed by the courts and are
even held against them when mothers
are suspected of manufacturing
false charges as a divorce strategy.
To fathers' groups,
''Breaking the Silence" is
blatant antidad propaganda. In
a campaign led by the Boston-based
Fathers and Families, PBS has
been bombarded with thousands
of calls and letters. It is now
conducting a 30-day review of
the research used in the film.
Dominique Lasseur told me he was
shocked by the backlash. ''I have
nothing against fathers,"
says Lasseur, a father of two,
''but I have outrage about children
being given to abusers."
There is no question
that our legal system fails children
all too often. But the PBS documentary
presents a skewed and sensationalist
Thus, Joan Meier,
a George Washington University
law professor and one of the film's
main experts, asserts that ''75
percent of contested custody cases
have a history of domestic violence"
and that about two-thirds of fathers
''accused or adjudicated of battering"
win sole or joint custody of their
The website of
the film's producers, Tatge/Lasseur
productions, lists two sources
for these claims: a study of 39
abused women involved in custody
litigation in Massachusetts, and
the 1990 report of the Massachusetts
Supreme Judicial Court Gender
Bias Study Committee which states
that fathers who actively seek
custody obtain primary or joint
physical custody over 70 percent
of the time.
But the 70 percent
figure was not limited to domestic
violence cases. It is also highly
misleading, since it doesn't separate
custody disputes from cases in
which the father gets custody
by mutual consent. In contested
custody cases, mothers are two
to four times more likely to prevail.
Silence" seems to suggest
that abusers who get custody of
their children are virtually always
male. In response to criticism,
the filmmakers say on their site
that since ''women are five to
eight times more likely than men
to be victimized by an intimate
partner," to feature one
male victim of abuse alongside
five women would have ''overstated
the problems of men."
of their figures is questionable:
the federally funded National
Violence against Women Survey
suggests that over a third of
domestic violence victims are
male. That aside, doesn't featuring
zero abusive mothers
significantly understate that
me that if he had encountered
cases in which an abusive mother
was awarded custody of the children,
he would have reported on them.
I asked about the claim on a battered
men's advocacy site that a man
named Tom Gallen had approached
him with exactly such a case.
Lasseur conceded that Gallen had
a well-documented story but explained
that, relying on his ''instinct
as a producer," he felt that
Gallen wouldn't be the right person
to assess the credibility of the
stories actually used in the film,
since their presentation is deliberately
one-sided. (Lasseur told me that
women's allegations of abuse are
often ''dismissed because it's
he said/she said," and that
he didn't want to recreate that
dynamic.) In at least one case,
involving a 16-year-old identified
as ''Amina," there are serious
questions about the film's accuracy.
supplied by the girl's father,
Scott Loeliger, and posted at
www.glennsacks.com, show that
there were fairly serious child
abuse allegations against ''Amina's"
mother. Moreover, the only spousal
abuse mentioned in these documents
is violence toward the father
by the mother.
also reveal a messy, complicated
case in which most evaluators
concluded that both parents were
behaving ''abominably." ''Breaking
the Silence" simplifies this
into a straightforward story of
a villainous man and a noble,
victimized woman, and does so
in the service of a film whose
overall effect is to vilify fathers.
contend that their only concern
was the well-being of children.
Yet, if the film contributes to
a climate in which fathers who
seek custody are tagged as suspected
abusers, it could endanger children
as well. PBS should rectify this
bias by presenting programs with
a different point of view.
Young is a contributing editor
at Reason magazine. Her column
appears regularly in the Globe.
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