Written by Staff
Saturday, 24 July 2010 10:31
What Breaking the Silence Means
Interview with Dominique Lasseur
Documentary film producer Dominique Lasseur set out to explore the failures of the family court system in “Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories.” But when public television broadcast the program in the fall of 2005, the father’s rights movement was quick to react with scathing criticism and a deluge of viewer complaints.
What compelled you to take on this issue?
We didn’t set out to produce a piece about custody issues. We had planned to make a documentary about the impact of domestic violence on children. We really wanted to show stories of what was being done to help children who were raised in domestic violence environments.
What we found was one story after another of protective mothers having their children taken away from them and given in sole or partial custody to the very man who terrorized the mother and the children. It was so outrageous, that when we heard the first stories we thought they were aberrations, but then we found that this was in fact happening often and everywhere. We knew at that point that this was the story to concentrate on.
When did you become convinced that there was a systemic problem within the family court system?
I met a woman in New Jersey and I spent an afternoon listening to her story. She had been divorced for two to three years and had lost custody of her kids. Her ex-husband was making her life a total prison by dragging her into court every month. She was a professional, intelligent woman, and I thought this can’t be happening. This is clearly a horrible story, but it has to be one case in a million.
But looking further we found the same story everywhere, in Florida, New Orleans, Ohio, California, etc. I spoke with dozens of women who were very candid about what they had endured. After listening to one story after another, there was no way to ignore the extent of the problem.
We chose to feature the stories where there were extensive court proceedings so that we could verify that what the women was telling us was what she had testified in court as well. So there was a clear history of allegations of domestic violence and/or child physical or psychological abuse. All the women we interviewed went to court believing the system was fair, not thinking for a moment their kids could be taken from them.
It seems that we are now on this issue where we were 20-25 years ago on domestic violence. I would assume that it was as difficult at that time to talk about domestic violence, as it is to talk about this particular issue now. People don’t want to believe it. They don’t want to know about it. To tell you the truth, many in my interviews I said to the woman I was interviewing, “It would be easier to believe that you were fabricating all this because what you’re telling me is so horrendous. It feels like you’re telling me a story about some remote country where there is no notion of justice.” And the fact that it’s happening here in America was unbelievable, is unbelievable.
In your opinion what is the underlying problem?
In my view, the problem is that while criminal courts have made tremendous progress in dealing with domestic violence, family courts are not as informed about the dynamics of family violence.
Why hasn’t the family court system progressed in the same way as the criminal court system?
On the record family court judges say to women, “You’re an intelligent, professional woman, so I don’t believe you’ve been abused.” You would not hear a judge in criminal court say that because people know that domestic violence is not just happening in inner city, poor neighborhoods. That’s one example.
The other example is people who are aware of the dynamic of domestic violence know what an abuser looks like and behaves like; they know that someone who is professional looking can be behind closed doors someone who has terrorized his wife and family. In fact, you have doctors, attorneys, actors who all look fabulous to the community but who are violent abusers. I think it comes down to a lack of training, lack of accountability.
What is the long-term impact of this problem?
As long as this situation continues we will undo years of progress on domestic violence because women are put in a Catch-22. If they don’t report child abuse or domestic violence, they stand the risk of losing their kids because they failed to protect them. But if they do disclose domestic violence or sexual abuse then the kids are at risk of being taken away because the mothers will be blamed for alienating them or fabricating charges.
Was it difficult to find a network to back your show?
No, I can’t say it was hard. We’ve been producing programs for Public Television for more than 20 years. I’m glad and proud that they are broadcasting our programs. We co-produced Breaking the Silence with Connecticut Public Television and it was aired nationally by PBS.
But the backlash has been pretty strong. There’s been an organized campaign mostly by father’s rights groups to demand that PBS stop distributing the program. They characterized it as an attack on fathers. This is akin to saying because you’re doing a documentary on the Holocaust you’re accusing all Germans. It makes no sense. But it has given them a forum and they have jumped on it.
Our point was not to deny that some men are victims of domestic violence. We did not seek to portray all men as rabid violent abusers. What we wanted to say is simple: children should not be put in the custody of a parent who is endangering them. In reviewing the show, ombudsmen for both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS criticized Breaking the Silence for lacking balance.
How do you respond?
The CPB Ombudsman, Ken Bode, clearly had some personal axe to grind. He did not bother to contact us before writing his “report” and simply regurgitated the fathers’ rights arguments. He went on to write two more “updates” without any indication that he was interested in the fairness and balance he claimed our documentary was lacking. The PBS Ombudsman did a more honest job even if we disagreed with his conclusions. And unlike Ken Bode, he published letters he received from people who disagreed with his report.
PBS’s official statement on the film indicated that, “The producers approached the topic with the open mindedness and commitment to fairness that we require of our journalists. Their research was extensive and supports the conclusions drawn in the program. Funding from the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation met PBS’s underwriting guidelines; the Foundation had no editorial influence on program content. However, the program would have benefited from more in-depth treatment of the complex issues surrounding child custody and the role of family courts and most specifically the provocative topic of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Additionally, the documentary’s ‘first-person story telling approach’ did not allow the depth of the producers’ research to be as evident to the viewer as it could have been.”
Did you look for a father who had a similar experience to some of the mothers featured in your show?
Yes, I spoke with a father’s organization and it was clear that that they had a specific political agenda that they wanted to bring to this. The women we interviewed were simply mothers who were trying to protect their kids.
Your main source of funding for Breaking the Silence, the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation, has also distanced itself from the program. Are you surprised by this?
The Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation did not distance itself from the program. There are very strict guidelines for PBS underwriters who are not to exercise any control over the editorial content of the programs they support. Mary Kay simply made it clear that these rules had been respected and that we the filmmakers had full editorial control. The work of the foundation and of Mary Kay Corporation on the issue of domestic violence is remarkable and will continue to affect positively the lives of thousands of women across the country.
It seems that the discussion about Breaking the Silence has turned into a debate over style rather than substance. Would you agree?
If the documentary helps in any way to open a dialogue about how family courts are victimizing the very families they are supposed to protect, then any debate will have been positive.
Has there been any positive outcome?
Yesterday, I was in Westchester County where I showed an eight-minute excerpt of Breaking the Silence to family court judges and personnel. Some were aware of the issues we presented and others were surprised. But it was very positive to see this information being used. You are not the first journalist to get into hot water after reporting on this topic. Kristen Lombardi, another contributor to this book, was sued and lost after writing an expose in the Boston Phoenix.
Why do you think these stories generate so much of a backlash?
These are complex stories filled with pain and extreme passions. There are strong vested interests that want to keep the public from knowing what is going on in family courts. I believe we’re approaching a tipping point when people will demand more accountability from our courts.
What advice do you give to other journalists who want to cover this issue?
My only advice is, get your facts straight, get good insurance and get a good attorney.
Are you planning to do a follow up to Breaking the Silence?
While our next project will not be on domestic violence, we are committed to do more on this issue and to follow up on what we have learned with Breaking the Silence.