The 4-year-old boy is jumping up and down with joy.
Dad gets out of the car.
“Daddy’s here! Daddy’s here!”
The boy is behind a locked screen door. He tries to open it.
“Daddy’s here! Mommy, look, daddy’s here!”
Dad knows he shouldn’t open the door. He waits for his ex-wife to open the door. She doesn’t do it.
“This is my visitation time,” Dad says, waving a court document.
Mom still won’t open the door.
The boy jumps up and down, saying, “Daddy, Daddy.” He yanks on the screen door handle but still can’t get it open.
Dad looks at his little boy. He pauses, takes a deep breath, and walks back to his car.
The little boy doesn’t understand. Why won’t Daddy come? Why is Daddy walking away from him?
The little boy disappears inside the house.
Dad calls the police. When the officers arrive he shows them his court documents. The officers go inside to investigate. They come out a few minutes later.
“Your son says he doesn’t want to see you,” the officer says. “There’s nothing I can do. You’ll have to deal with it in the court. I can’t make him go with you if he doesn’t want to.”
Dad finally gets to see his kids three months later. The children spit on both him and their grandmother. Almost in unison they repeat, “I don’t want to be here. I want to go home with mommy.”
After Jim L.’s wife divorced him and moved his daughters out of state, she sent the two girls fake or altered e-mails purporting to be Jim. Afterwards, Jim’s daughters refused to see him, explaining only: “You know what you’ve done; you know what you said; you know what you wrote.”
Once when Jim flew to see his girls for his scheduled weekend visit, his ex-wife decided at the last minute to block the visit. Jim flew home on Sunday without having seen his girls. When he arrived at the airport back home he checked his messages and found a message from his ex-wife. On the recording, his girls could be heard crying in the background. His ex-wife said:
“Jim, the girls are here at the restaurant waiting for you to come pick them up. You said you’d meet them here for breakfast and spend the day with them, and you didn’t show up. The girls are very upset. Jim, where are you!?”
These cases are examples of Parental Alienation Syndrome – the phenomenon of a parent (generally the mother/custodial parent) turning his or her children against the noncustodial parent after divorce or separation. PAS is the focus of the controversial new PBS documentary “Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories” which airs tonight on Public Broadcasting Service stations in dozens of major cities.
In it the filmmakers label PAS “junk science” and assert that it “has been used in countless cases by abusive fathers to gain custody of their children” by falsely accusing the mothers of PAS.
Despite the film’s claims, research shows that parental alienation is a common facet of divorce or separation. For example, a longitudinal study published by the American Bar Association in 2003 followed 700 “high conflict” divorce cases over a 12-year period and found that elements of PAS were present in the vast majority of them.
The most extreme examples of PAS are the false allegations of sexual abuse, which are often used for advantage in custody cases. Canadian Sen. Anne Cools, a prominent feminist who led Canada’s battered women’s shelter movement during the 1970s, labels this tactic “the heart of darkness.” She says:
“I’ve studied this extensively, and I’ve placed on the Canadian Senate record 52 cases where there was a finding that the accusations were false, and there are countless more. Studies have shown that under these circumstances false accusations far outnumber truthful ones.”
According to a study published in Social Science and Modern Society, the vast majority of accusations of child sexual abuse made during custody battles are false, unfounded or unsubstantiated. Cools notes that in the 52 cases she studied, “there were absolutely no consequences at all for the women who knowingly made the false accusations.”
In a strange reversal, the filmmakers claim that the real problem is that many mothers are losing custody for “revealing” that their husbands have molested their daughters. Yet in the few cases where a mother has lost custody for making false allegations, the courts usually had good reason for acting as they did. The two most famous cases – those involving model Bridget Marks and sociologist Amy Neustein – are illustrative of the point.
Despite widespread media sympathy, all five judges in Marks’ case concluded that Marks had coached her girls to believe they had been sexually molested by their father. Earlier this year, Neustein’s now adult daughter, Sherry Orbach, publicly refuted her mother’s claims.
“Breaking the Silence” is a direct assault on American fathers and the minimal, hard-won gains they have made in protecting their children’s right to have their fathers in their lives. Courts still reflexively side with mothers and often allow them to deny visitation, make false allegations of domestic violence or child sexual abuse, and drive fathers out of their children’s lives.
As a society, we pretend that broken families are all men’s fault, pay lip service to the importance of fathers and close our eyes while millions of children are separated from the fathers they love and need. Because that’s what mom wants. Because it’s easier to blame everything on dad than it is to confront mom on her destructive behavior. Because trying to hold a divorcing mother accountable for her behavior is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. Because there’s a high political cost to be paid for crossing mothers and none to be paid for crossing fathers. Throwing objectivity, fairness and reason to the wind, PBS and “Breaking the Silence” don’t merely ignore or minimize this problem, but instead turn it on its head.
Jeffery M. Leving is one of America’s most prominent family law attorneys. He is the author of the book “Fathers’ Rights: Hard-hitting and Fair Advice for Every Father Involved in a Custody Dispute.” His website is www.dadsrights.com.
Glenn Sacks’ columns on men’s and fathers’ issues have appeared in dozens of the largest newspapers in the United States. He invites readers to visit his website at www.GlennSacks.com.