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Custody Crisis: Why Moms Are Punished in Court

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Talk to mothers, divorce lawyers, and child advocates and you'll hear tales of a family court system that's badly broken.

Linda Marie and Children

Gina Kaysen Fernandes: To an outsider, Linda Marie Sacks had the perfect life. Her husband was rich, and they lived in a huge home in Daytona Beach, FL, where she spent her days shuttling her girls to school and various activities. Linda Marie describes herself as a "squeaky clean soccer mom" who "lived my life for my children." Behind that fa├žade, Linda Marie says she married a monster -- a man who verbally and emotionally attacked her for years and sexually abused their two young daughters.

When she finally left him and tried to take her girls with her, she encountered a new monster -- family court. Rather than protecting Linda Marie and her two young daughters from a sexual predator, a family court judge denied Linda Marie custody and put her daughters into the hands of their sexually abusive father.

Talk to mothers, divorce lawyers, and child advocates and you'll hear tales of a family court system that's badly broken. It's one that routinely punishes women for coming forward with allegations of abuse by denying them custody of their children. Instead of protecting children from abusers and predators, the court often gives sole custody to the abusive parent, say child advocates. Mothers who tell judges their children are being molested or beaten are accused of lying and are punished for trying to intervene. Some are thrown in jail for trying to keep their kids from seeing an abusive parent. Women, many of whom have few financial resources at their disposal, are often at the mercy of a court system that is not designed to handle domestic violence.

Linda Marie first suspected something was wrong in 2002 when she received a shocking phone call from a school administrator. Her 7-year-old daughter was acting out sexually, with knowledge beyond her years. A short time later, the Sunday school teacher reported overhearing Linda Marie's daughter saying, "I suck my dad's penis." She received more phone calls from school about her little girl using Barbie dolls to simulate oral sex with a boy in her class. "I was very concerned, these are alarming red flags," said Linda Marie.

She consulted family therapists who also expressed alarm and concern, but failed to report these claims to an abuse hotline. In one of the therapy sessions, the oldest daughter drew a picture that depicted her father as an erect penis on legs. Linda Marie says she once walked in on her husband wiping her daughters' vaginas in the bathroom before school, "because he told me he wanted them to be fresh." When Linda Marie confronted her husband, he ignored and dismissed the allegations.

After 11 years of marriage, Linda Marie filed for divorce in 2004. Armed with detailed documentation, she believed the judge would grant her sole custody of her two daughters for their protection. "I was sheltered. I didn't know I had stepped into a national crisis in the courts," said Linda Marie, who spent tens of thousands of dollars in a legal battle that ended in the loss of her parental rights. Linda Marie has only seen her children during supervised visits for a total of 54 hours over the past two and a half years. "I'm one of the lucky moms," she said, choking back tears. "Some bonds are severed forever. I'm thankful for my two hours a month."

Some mothers like Lorraine Tipton of Oconto Falls, WI, have served jail time as the result of contentious custody arraignments. In November, a judge sentenced Lorraine to 30 days behind bars because she didn't force her 11-year-old daughter to follow the court's order to live every other week with her abusive father. "She's terrified of going; she has night terrors and severe anxiety," said Lorraine.

Her ex, Craig Hensberger, was arrested three times for domestic violence and once for child abuse. His criminal record also includes two DUI arrests, one of which happened while driving with his daughter. The court ordered Hensberger into rehab and demanded "absolute sobriety," but his daughter claims he still drinks excessively when she visits.

Hensberger admitted in court that he still continues to drink, but the judge punished Lorraine instead for trying to protect her child. "My abuser is continuing his abuse of me and my daughter with the help of the court," said Lorraine, who spent three days locked up until her daughter made the heart-wrenching decision to return to her father's home so her mother could be released from jail. "He can't get to me physically. The only way he knows how to hurt me is to take my child away."

"What we are seeing amounts to a civil rights crisis," says attorney and legal writer Michael Lesher, who co-authored the book From Madness To Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running from the Family Courts -- and What Can Be Done about It. Many judges and court-appointed guardians act above the law with apparent impunity, he argues.

"There's no hearing, no evidence, no notice -- they can take your child away from you," Lesher tells momlogic. If a mother raises concerns or openly discusses child abuse in court, she typically ends up being the one under investigation. "Mom is guilty until proven innocent," he says.

A family court judge with the Los Angeles Superior Court refused momlogic's request for an interview to respond to these allegations.

Unlike criminal court, family court does not rely on criminal investigators to gather evidence in an alleged child abuse case. Instead, the court appoints family advocates known as "guardian ad litem," or GAL, who are expected to investigate the abuse allegations and make their recommendation in the best interest of the child. GALs are sometimes licensed psychologists, social workers, or attorneys who are not necessarily trained in evaluating sexual abuse or domestic violence. They have the judge's ear, and their opinions can alter a child's future. There are no juries and there's no mandate for legal representation. In fact, most women end up representing themselves because they can't afford the attorney fees.

Most moms don't want to take the case to criminal court because they prefer to keep the matter private. Legal experts contend the evidence in sexual abuse cases isn't typically strong enough to hold up in criminal court to overcome the threshold of "beyond a reasonable doubt." While the bar is set much lower for proving evidence in family court, advocates argue Child Protective Services frequently doesn't want to get involved. "If there's a custody battle going on, CPS won't touch it," says Irene Weiser of the advocacy group

There's no doubt fathers play a critical role in a child's life, and in most cases, are equally loving and capable parents who deserve custody. However, studies find when a wife accuses her husband of abuse, more than half the time, she faces a counter-accusation of "parental alienation syndrome," or PAS. Although PAS is not a medically recognized disorder, divorce attorneys often successfully argue that it emerges when a parent brainwashes a child into thinking the other parent is the enemy.

The psychiatrist Richard Gardner, who first coined the phrase "parental alienation syndrome" in 1987, has written more than one hundred articles on the subject, but has offered no scientific data to support his theory. While it's not considered a certifiable medical condition, PAS is widely accepted in the legal community.

"Parental Alienation unequivocally, categorically exists, and it's a form of child abuse," says author and forensic consultant Dean Tong. While he believes more studies need to be done to validate PAS, "it does exist, anecdotally speaking," he says. As an expert witness, Tong has been called a "fathers' rights prostitute" for his work in court clashes. But he also testifies for mothers who are fighting to appeal unfavorable rulings. For Tong, it's about using forensics to find the truth. "I'm not here to protect guys who are guilty," he says.

In years past, mothers were typically considered the "protective parent" in custody decisions when courts relied on the "Tender Years Doctrine," which states that children under the age of 13 should live with their mothers. Recently, several courts have ruled that doctrine violated the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th amendment, and replaced it with the "Best Interests of the Children" doctrine. It's a huge victory for the increasingly powerful Fatherhood Movement that contends dads are systematically alienated from their children after a divorce.

Tong argues the current legal climate continues to put fathers on the receiving end of false allegations. "It's handcuffs first, speak later," said Tong, who experienced that firsthand. In 1985, Tong's ex-wife falsely accused him of sexually abusing his 3-year-old daughter. He spent time in jail and went through "a year of hell" trying to prove his innocence. While Tong was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, he never regained custody of his kids, and remained under supervised visitation for years. Tong became a self-taught expert on the subject of family rights and abuse accusations. He has written three books, including Elusive Innocence: Survival Guide for the Falsely Accused.

"There's an assumption that maintaining a child's relationship with the father is a good idea -- even if the father is abusive," says Stop Family Violence's Weiser, who believes when the overburdened court system is unable to sort out a custody conflict, it relies on misogyny. She argues there are many judges, GALs, and evaluators who believe that women are inherently vindictive and will lie to get a leg up in a custody battle. "We see it over and over again in family court, where judges or professionals don't believe the violence is occurring," Weiser says.

"All we have is 'he said, she said.' Who's telling the truth? That's up to the judge," says Tong, who believes the justice system isn't working for either side. "The system is not doing a good job interviewing kids, we're still in the dark ages there," says Tong, who thinks there needs to be more formal education and training for the professionals, including judges who are hearing child custody cases.

According to the American Bar Association, child abuse allegations in custody disputes are rare -- occurring in only six percent of cases. The majority of those accusations are substantiated. In terms of false allegations, fathers are more likely than mothers to intentionally lie (21 percent, compared to 1.3 percent). In fact, abusive parents are more likely to seek sole custody than nonviolent ones, and are successful about 70 percent of the time.

After three years of litigation, Linda Marie Sacks says she was no match for her ex-husband's financial resources and powerful connections. "He was buying his way through the courtroom." Despite 10 calls into the abuse hotline by licensed professionals, Linda Marie's ex-husband still claimed she was making false allegations of abuse to alienate his children, and the judge believed him. Linda Marie was kicked out of her home and put on supervised visitation with her two daughters, who are now ages 10 and 12. "The judge legally kidnapped my daughters and won't give them back," she said.

In some extreme cases, a custody decision will be reversed, which is what happened to Joyce Murphy. The San Diego mother was charged with kidnapping after she took her daughter out of state, away from the girl's father, because she believed he was a child molester. The father, Henry Parson, accused Joyce of parental alienation and she lost custody. "Despite my pleas for protection to the police and the DA and the family court representatives, and even psychologists, Mr. Parson was able to convince them and the community at large that he was the victim, and I was just an angry, embittered, divorced woman," explained Joyce.

Six years later, Parson was caught in the act and pleaded guilty to six counts of child abuse, which included oral sex with a child, molestation, possessing child porn, and using a child to make porn. After Parson received a six-year prison sentence, Joyce told reporters that family court's only good decision in her case was granting her full permanent custody of her daughter after her ex-husband was jailed.

Lorraine, the Wisconsin mom who was jailed for protecting her daughter, knows her daughter's nightmare will continue for the rest of her childhood. "He's never going to stop, it's never going to end until she's 18." Linda Marie says she's putting every penny towards her legal efforts to win back custody of her daughters. "I will never stop fighting for my girls. I know one day justice will prevail."

Critics argue that not only is the family court system broken, it was never designed to deal with issues like child custody. The goal is to develop solutions that are in the best interest of the child. "Unfortunately when judges and guardians start thinking of themselves as super government, all sorts of abuses will occur," says attorney and author Lesher.

Activists are working towards making reforms through legislation. "The heartbreaking challenge is that there's not one quick fix," says Stop Family Violence's Weiser. "This is a war -- it's very ugly, it's bloody, and very bitter," concludes Tong.

next: Memory Overload
339 comments so far | Post a comment now
Mamma M January 19, 2010, 5:04 AM

Wow. I cannot believe how horrible that is. The system is definitely broken.

Cher January 19, 2010, 11:20 AM

The system is very broken. You can’t fathom how disappointing and disheartening it is to believe in the system your whole life, believe that they will protect you and your family, only to have that same system be the one who tears your family apart. I agree, MANDATORY yearly training needs to take place for all the judges, evaluations and anyone else involved. My judge came from, I believe, bankruptcy law……whichever law he was practicing previously it was completely different from child custody. If they are going to rule on the direction of these children’s lives, something that will affect them for the rest of their lives, they should have training. The laws need to be amended, period! It’s ugly and it IS happening!!!!!!

Nancy Carroll January 19, 2010, 11:28 AM

Thank goodness for this article. The behavior of judges and other court “professionals” needs to be exposed and very few people have been willing to write about this in the national press. Most importantly to remember is not just what the mothers go through, but what the children go through. They often have to be drugged to be able to cope with the continued abuse or rape when placed with the abuser. Sometimes they are sent off for inpatient treatment which includes horrendous methods including electroshock and threat therapy. They are often barred from seeing their mothers, with all contact being cut off or minimalized, such as Linda Marie’s couple of hours every month. Then throw in the humiliation of being watched while you are with your own children is just icing to top the abuser’s cake. Knowing that, besides actually killing the mother, nothing will hurt her worse than taking her children, these abusers litigate with their hired guns until they take the mother down like a pack of wolves after an injured doe. No surprise the judge didn’t want to talk about it…they should be ashamed about what is happening in the courts and ultimately the children.

Annette January 19, 2010, 11:55 AM

Thank you Gina, for such an informative and true account of Court Ordered Child Abuse. Childrens lives are being destroyed. As in Joyce Murphy’s case, not only was their daughter’s life place in direct harms way, three completely unrelated children’s lives were destroyed. When the court ignores that a parent is abusing their child, they are also placing other people’s children at risk.
Why is it, that when a child abuser is unrelated to the child, people are outraged, and it’s a media frenzy, but when the abuser is a parent, it’s acceptable?
Joyce was only able to get custody of her daughter, because someone elses children had to pay the ultimate price and be sexually violated.
That’s a price no parent (directly or indirectly) should want their chilren to pay.

Sue January 19, 2010, 12:32 PM

Mom Logic,

Not only was Joyce Murphy isolated and ridiculed when people did NOT originally believe her, she was later chastised by community members for not doing enough to alert others about her husband being a danger in the local area.

She and her children lost 6 years of their lives. Who can give it back to them? I think a lawsuit is in order.

Dr. Green January 19, 2010, 12:37 PM

@Cher, there is already mandatory training for judges and other officials. The problem really is that we operate in a sexist society and our family court is a segment of same, and thus reflects society. Furthermore, we have different trainings going on. On one camp, we have groups talking about domestic violence prevention, and other the other side, we have groups pushing the theory that domestic violence is equal between men and women. This same group also pushes parental alienation syndrome. Look at the curriculum vitae of some of these professionals and you will see that they are affiliated with the AFCC who promote PAS and mutual domestic violence.

Cher January 19, 2010, 12:51 PM

Dr. Green, I’m unaware, and we’ve checked over and over, of any mandatory Family Law training with a focus on child custody. I’m really interested to know what kind of training they are receiving. I guess I should have clarified, by training, I mean that professionals in Child Development teach the judges and officials, NOT supervising judges passing down the PAS theory to the judges they are “training”.
Also, you bring up a great point in regards to domestic violence prevention…..the same people in the system who promote and encourage abused women (or men) to leave their abuser are the same people taking the children away from that courageous person who did leave. In my particular case, the judge who oversaw my custody case, and gave my ex-abuser 50/50 custody, is the same judge who granted not 1, BUT 2 restraining orders and encouraged me to follow-through with them and the divorce. I now wonder, was he concerned for my and my daughter’s well-being or was he just looking to circulate more money into the system?

oh_mama January 19, 2010, 12:58 PM

And don’t gloss over that “Doctor” Gardner is a gay pedophile who was a member of NAMBLA and wrote extensively on sexual relationships between grown men and innocent young boys.

Alexis A Moore January 19, 2010, 12:58 PM

Great piece that helps to examine what can best be described as a crisis in the family law courts. It is very important that our policy makers including newly appointed White House Advisor for violence against women Sarah Lynn Rosenthal help to reform the family law court system so that “No victim is left behind” to ensure that the children are protected from abusive parents. The family law courts are out of touch with the needs of families in the 21st century.

Alexis A. Moore, President & Founder
Survivors In Action

Dr. Green January 19, 2010, 1:11 PM

@Cher, let me give you an example of a child development “professional.”

Check out this post on one out of N.J.:

People like her are doing the training. Men and women alike, across the U.S. and overseas. Who can we trust?

Trisha  January 19, 2010, 1:15 PM

Thank you Gina, Momlogic, and most importantly, the courageous women who told their stories. Many of us will not speak up, for extreme retaliation will ensue. The statistics will never be accurate, as women have either been placed under a “gag” order, or they are threatned to never see their children again. Father’s will speak out, they have no court retaliation, and most will never be placed under a gag order, because they have major funding behind them, propelling the crisis against children. While many feel that this is about a parents rights, still left in the dark and virtually voieceless are the children. If the father’s rights movement would only stop to consider how many children they are being place at risk, by their funding, children might have a chance at a normal, happy, healthy life, free of any type of abuse. They are ignoring the human rights of children, and their civil rights as well. While Dr. Green states that there is already triaing going on, I would have to say, THEN ITS NOT WORKING. The training has failed.

Rachael January 19, 2010, 1:25 PM

There will be someone who will read this and will help her. I pray to God that someone will do something for this mother. I know her personally and she is a wonderful and loving individual who truly deserves to be involved in her children’s lives. This is Justice for Children’s case and I wanted to clarify that there are many people who were witnesses to the children’s and the ex husbands statements and behaviors, therapists, teachers, friends of the family etc. It hasn’t been Linda who has been the accuser and I don’t believe that Linda would ever publicly accuse him, out of fear. The case and the evidence speaks for itself. Please if you are reading this and can help this mother get a new judge or can do anything for her, please help.

Just another statistic January 19, 2010, 1:31 PM

Unfortunately, there may never be a way to stop this growing pandemic. These Judges and their appointed cohorts have made a wonderful living destroying innocent people’s lives. Each and every reform group, including Elkins, and the groups that “educate and train” such as AFCC, all have corrupt people involved in them. Some are Judges, some are minors counsels’, some are custody evaluators, (you get the point)so they will stop the efforts to make changes that will ensure the safety of the children first and foremost. Some of the most prominant players in the legslature are in collusion with these Judges as well. While some want to address the problems, and make laws to protect, there are others, like Mike Feuer, who stop the progress of the safety of children. I do not believe he should be able to make, change or have any say regarding laws in family law. His wife is a Judge, which makes him bias, and is a direct conflict of interest, not to mention, places the safety of children behind the false belief that a parent has a possessory interest of a child. If a child is in danger, that should be the most important aspect of a case, and not how much money courts and cohorts can make by omitting evidence, ignoring the children, and violating their civil and human rights.

Kathleen Russell January 19, 2010, 1:41 PM

An excellent article, Gina. Kudos to MomLogic for writing about this vastly under-reported tragedy in our nation’s family courts.

Linda Marie is a warrior Mom in the best sense of that word- and there are tens of thousands, if not more, Linda Marie’s all over the country, surviving horrific ordeals in the nightmarish hell they come to know as family court. Their crime? Trying to protect their children from criminal abuse. The persecution of these Moms must be stopped, for the courts are creating an entire generation of abused kids that will cost society dearly as damaged adults, future prison inmates, mental health services users, and the list goes on and on.

Just like the Catholic Church, just like Wall Street, and just like the health insurance industry, these courts have run amok for far too long with no real regulation or accountability to anyone. The family courts should be next in line for a massive overhaul, and the public needs to demand it.

Women and children are being killed by men who supposedly love them in record numbers, and no one seems to be connecting the dots back to family court. When abusive behavior is rewarded by family court judges, then abusers will continue to kill their families, and the cycle of violence will perpetuate.

California state lawmakers are working on legislation right now to forbid the use of PAS in family courts (AB 612), and to give children a meaningful voice in family court proceedings about their future (AB 1050), since so often they are treated as mere property to be divided. The CA State Auditor is also auditing the use of court appointees in family courts here, with a report due out in April 2010.

Thank you so much for this important story- you are doing a real public service to your readers by warning them of the dangers they could face in family court.

Kathleen Russell
Center for Judicial Excellence

Brenda January 19, 2010, 1:51 PM

Usually, it isn’t the mother that makes the report of abuse. But, it is the mother’s responsibility to go to family court to protect the child. I was told by DCFS, after a third party made a report of abuse, that I knew nothing about, to get a restraining order, change custody and visitation. I was not involved in a divorce, there were no cases pending, nothing “contentious” to blame it on. I was told by DCFS, that if I did not comply, they would remove the child for “failure to protect.” So I attempted to do this, they closed the case because the restraining order was in place. An overly agressive father’s rights attorney, who has helped write a book on how fathers can get sole custody, jumped in, and with the help of a corrupt minors counsel, I was immeditally blamed for alienation. No evidence to support the child was obtained by minors counsel. The overly agressive father’s rights attorney accompanied his guilty client to an interview with a “Specail Unit Investigator” and did most of the talking. That information was also supressed from the court. Needless to say, I was threatned to have our child taken away numerous times, in retaliation for daring to ask minors counsel when she was going to obtain the evidence. Anyway, the evidence was never presented to the court, I was blamed for going to the court, as if I did it all on my own, the court never knew that I was told to do this by DCFS. I was threatned by DCFS to protect or lose custody, then I was threatned by minors counsel as well to lose custody for alienation. Great system. No parent will ever be able to protect a child from abuse. And it’s the governments fault because no one will listen. Not even the President himself. He’d rather focus on other countries problems than his own.

tennmom January 19, 2010, 3:04 PM

I think this problem started largely due to the mothers who DID make up lies, which caused the court system to cop a more “oh, yeah, prove it” attitude towards mothers who are telling the truth. Sometimes, even when a child does testify and is obviously telling the truth, the mother is accused of coaching the child.
It is heartbreaking for any child to have to go through such treatment.
Hopefully, the kids who are stuck in a hellish situation can stay strong and sane enough to survive until they are old enough to legally leave an abusive parent’s home.
Do those parents actually not realize that will resent and hate them until the day they die? I hope many of them are brave enough to press charges when they are old enough.

N January 19, 2010, 3:28 PM

I don’t understand why these women don’t leave the country with their kids. i would do anything to protect my children. hell i would kill the dad and go to prison if it means my children would be safe

Cher January 19, 2010, 4:04 PM

N -
While these women currently do anything legal to protect their children, fleeing the country isn’t as easy as it sounds. Further, if they are caught and arrested, who does that leave to protect their children? I don’t think illegally retaliating to someone else’s illegalities is the answer. Why should we have to go to those extremes? Why aren’t the children being protected by the government put in place to protect them/us? Those are the things that need to be focused on, not doing something equally malicious that will only hurt the child in the end, albeit differently.

Gail Lakritz January 19, 2010, 4:25 PM

I believe that one of the reasons this happens to so many women is that judges are taken in by narcissists to begin with. Once taken in, if they admit they were wrong in the first place, it throws all their past decisions into question and risks their jobs. It’s called cover your a**.

The other is that they are, for the most part, men. The women who want to play in their league, must adhere to the same rules. Men stick with men. Not one of them hasn’t had the urge to kill their wife ot have sex with a young child, and so they feel that what they fantasize about is okay in others. If they had to go through the mental testing that the rest of us do, they would fail, and no one would have to be paid to say it.

Rochelle January 19, 2010, 4:33 PM

All we want for our children is truth and justice. Is that too much to ask for?
This world we live in, is a poor example of what our past generations built it up to be. We are now a world where greed and self preservation takes priority over future generations. Where a parent can make a life, and then destroy it, in the name of the “law,” for the law is whatever that Judge wants their law to be. Where a parent can lie and deceive to protect oneself, but a child that knows not yet how to lie, and deceive will not be heard, even when the truth is told through their tears.
What kind of cruel, inhumane system have we allowed to take over, who can look at a child who’s only thought for the moment is “why won’t anyone protect me?” and call them a liar.
I for one, am not proud to be an American, for this is not the land of free and the home of the brave.
It costs far too much, and we live in fear.

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