Court Licensed Abuse by Clare Hardy O'Toole
ARE OUR FAMILY COURTS ENABLING CHILD SEXUAL ABUSERS?
BATTERED MOTHERS TAKE THEIR CASE TO WASHINGTON
When 16-year-old Damon Moelter took advantage of Nevada’s liberal marriage laws and tied the knot at one of Reno’s iconic kitsch “chapels” recently, his ceremony marked the start of something remarkable. It wasn’t his age or the fact that he had only met his bride in person a few hours prior to the wedding that was most significant.
What distinguishes this marriage and this groom from any other who might travel to Nevada to experience its offbeat brand of wedding services was that Damon chose to marry to protect himself from Family Court custody decisions stemming from his parents longstanding divorce battle. A marriage certificate gave him legal emancipation from his father, whom he claims has repeatedly sexually molested him, and from Family Court rulings that stripped his protective mother of custody and forced him to live under the sole confines of his abusive father.
Damon’s mother, Cindy Dumas, explained:
“I have never doubted my son. I fought for 10 years to protect him in the Family Court system. I did everything I could but the judges wouldn’t listen to me. They wouldn’t listen to my son. So when he’d turned 14, he ran away from his father and was in hiding for a year and a half.”
Unlike most custody battles that are played out privately behind the closed doors of Family Court, Damon’s story captured public attention when, from the age of 13, he began to upload videos to YouTube calling for recognition that he was a victim of his sexually abusive father whom he said had threatened to kill him if he spoke out. His father, Eric Moelter, has persistently denied the accusations, maintaining his son and former wife are delusional.
Phyllis Chesler, Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at City University, New York, has spent at least three decades observing cases such as Damon’s.
She says no one would argue that all mothers are perfect, but most are “good enough” and very few go to court with a record that suggests they are genuinely “unfit” to parent. Yet, she says, increasingly, mothers are losing custody to fathers they allege are abusing the children.
Chesler is also a psychotherapist, expert courtroom witness and author of the recently updated, seminal treatise on abuse and child custody, “Mothers on Trial.” In her opinion:
“The courts don’t seem to realize a good father, by definition, doesn’t launch the custody battle from hell. Battles can take tens of years – like going through a war. No one emerges unscathed, least of all the children whom the courts are supposed to protect.”
Over the years, Chesler has seen a pattern emerging:
As she explains:
“Some mothers lost custody of their children to their batterers. Many battered mothers lost their children when they alleged their violent husbands had also been sexually abusing their child. Often such mothers are seen as “crazy,” and as “alienating” the child from their “perfectly nice” father.
The court system does not want to believe that a well-spoken, charismatic man could really be a savage wife-beater or child abuser. It is easier to believe that his traumatized, sleepless, frightened and rapidly impoverished wife is lying, exaggerating or imagining things. I have interviewed many such mothers.”
In 1986, after eight years of researching, Phyllis Chesler was the first academic to debunk the common misconception that mothers are more likely to win custody battles than fathers. She makes the significant distinction that mothers are usually the primary parent caring for children during the marriage, therefore they do not “win” custody as such, they “retain” it when fathers chose not to fight and custody of the children is agreed upon between parents. Chesler vouches for an increasing body of statistical research that demonstrates when fathers do fight for custody, and divorces goes to trial - contesting fathers win custody at least 70 percent of the time.
Many mothers might have cracked under the pressure of losing custody to a man they believe is molesting their child, but Cindy Dumas has shown remarkable tenacity and held her nerve. Likewise, over the course of proceedings, Damon came under the scrutiny of several judges, and an array of court appointed evaluators and therapists. Some tried to persuade him the abuse never happened; yet, he never veered from his molestation claims. He’s remained adamant that he has no wish to live with his father. He said he would not feel safe.
While on the run from his father, Damon moved between secret havens provided by Good Samaritans. He conducted a social media campaign and petitioned the court to honor his right to be safe, to grant custody to his mother or give him emancipation. All avenues failed to bring him the security he desperately sought.
An unlikely champion stepped forward, and Damon’s story was taken up by Fox 11-LA which followed the fugitive. His attorney, Pat Barry, told Fox 11:
“The legal system refuses to acknowledge just how much, how badly they botch these cases for children.”
Typically, mainstream media exhibit extreme reticence to cover divorce and custody cases that are not celebrity focused, often citing privacy issues or limited resources to investigate the complexities of highly contentious cases and deliver balanced, objective reports. Even cases considered newsworthy because they involve the death of a child at the hands of a parent previously identified by a former spouse as abusive, tend to be treated as isolated incidents.
Significant stories and trends that should be newsworthy are therefore being missed, and in some cases - ignored. Crimes, such as the kidnappings of three women in Cleveland and Jaycee Dugard, draw huge response from media and public. But, crimes of equal depravity and ongoing cruelty that are Family Law based don’t get the scrutiny they deserve.
Fox11 is, so far, one of the few media outlets to cover what is emerging as a tragedy of epidemic proportions in the U.S., mirrored by equally disturbing cases around the world.
Figures released by the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence (a nonprofit independent scientific organization composed of scientists, clinicians, educators, legal scholars, and public policy analysts), show as many as 58,000 U.S. children a year are being taken from their protective parent and placed into custody or unsupervised visitation with molesters and batterers.
The National Safe Child Coalition (NSCC) has appealed to the Surgeon General to have child sexual abuse declared an epidemic, and are in communications with the Victims’ Rights Caucus to raise concern about Human Rights violations of child victims.
While there are protective fathers, and couples in same sex relationships battling over child custody and visitation rights, these cases are comparatively small in number. It is evident from reports and statistics emerging from The Leadership Council, various domestic violence agencies and the Center for Disease Control - vast numbers of children are being taken from “good enough” mothers and placed in harm’s way in the custody or care of their abusive fathers.
Statistics on domestic violence and child sexual abuse show that perpetrators are, most likely, male - usually the child’s father or someone who is part of the child’s familial circle of trust. In the case of child sexual abuse, the Leadership Council examined law enforcement as well as victim self-report data. As a result, it is estimated up to 90% of the perpetrators are male.
When divorce rates over time are factored in, Dr. Joy Silberg, Executive Vice President of the Leadership Council says;
“A conservative estimate, based on available research leads us to conclude: at any point in time, it is likely that half a million children are left unprotected from a violent parent after their parent’s divorce and this parent is, more often than not - their father.”
Many of these children are said to be held captive -psychologically and sometimes physically -by their abusive father, restrained from contact with their healthy, protective mother and subjected to subversive reasoning powers.
The behavior has been termed “Domestic Violence By Proxy.” It was first coined by Dr. Alina Patterson in her book “Health and Healing,” published in 2003, and is used in Leadership Council reports.
In these cases, it is said, the father might threaten to harm the children if they display a positive bond with their mother. He might destroy favored possessions given by the mother, or use emotional torture; telling the child the mother doesn’t want to see them because she doesn’t love them. In reality the mother may be court ordered not to see her children or may have severely restricted contact. The father may coach the children to make false allegations against their mother and combine this with creating and presenting fraudulent documents to the court to disadvantage the mother further.
In the most severe cases, DV By Proxy may lead to a child becoming trapped in a state of emotional mind that psychologists trained in domestic violence describe as: “traumatic bonding” – similar to Stockholm syndrome.
The Fox 11 series “Lost in the System” refers to specific cases, whereas, the Washington Post published an editorial based on developments at the tenth, annual Battered Mothers’ Custody Conference (BMCC X). This year, it was held in Washington DC at the George Washington University Law School over the Mothers’ Day weekend, in a bid to bring battered mother’s child custody concerns to the heart of government.
The conference offers a national, public forum to explore and expose the many complex issues facing battered women and the children they seek to protect when facing the machinations of Family Court Law and those practitioners involved in the cottage industry associated with divorce and child custody matters.
For ten years, speakers, representing many of the keenest minds in research and advocacy for battered mothers and their children have gathered to share ideas and push for change. They represent the vanguard of the fight for improved outcomes from the justice system, with child safety the paramount objective.
The lessons learned from this year’s conference will be carried forward over the months ahead.
Currently, custody rulings are made on a judge’s arbitrary interpretations of legal tenets relating to the “Best Interests of the Child.” Findings from studies conducted by Phyllis Chesler, The Leadership Council and others, have been confirmed by Barry Goldstein and Dr. Mo Therese Hannah, co-editors of “Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody.” The authors agree that Family Court judges show a marked deference to fathers’ rights and a casualty of this practice has been child safety.
I attended the conference and listened to several speakers explain how millions of taxpayer dollars have been poured into the federally funded “Fatherhood Initiative” to encourage fathers to become more involved in child rearing. It seems a tragic and unforeseen result has been the reunification of children with their abusive fathers, to the detriment of child safety concerns.
Likewise, Adjunct Professor of Sexual Violence at New England Law, Boston, impact litigator, former prosecutor and author of “And Justice for Some,” Wendy Murphy, told how judges - faced with the decision of whether to put sex offenders and abusers behind bars -are pressured to put them back on the street to take advantage of questionable treatment programs funded by public money.
One of the most striking revelations came from Camille Cooper, Director of Legislative Affairs for “Protect,” which spearheaded two successful acts of Congress to further child protection. Cooper unveiled an interactive map produced by the “Internet Crimes against Children Taskforce.” She said law enforcement knows the whereabouts of 500,000 individual IP addresses trading in sadistic images.
She said it was the first time in the history of this issue that such a map had ever been shown to the American public showing the magnitude of child sexual abuse. But even with the tools to nail sex offenders through their Internet activity, it emerged there is a gross disparity between known offences and actual prosecutions in criminal or family court. Due to lack of resources to fund an adequate response, only 2% of cases identified have been investigated.
Cooper said the evidence gives the lie to claims that incidences of child sexual abuse are on the decline. And she insisted it is not appropriate to refer to the 30 million images produced simply as child pornography.
“These are crime scene images of very young children being tortured and raped.”
Combined with CDC findings that there is an incidence reported of overall child abuse or neglect every 10 seconds, the clear record of criminal Internet activity involving child sexual abuse casts a dim light on the trend of family court judge’s to automatically doubt the validity of mothers’ claims when they make allegations of domestic violence and child sexual abuse.
Phyllis Chesler, who was keynote speaker for the conference, used strong language to define her frustration:
“There is now a toxic bias in the family courts, resulting in court enabled incest and the legal torture of protective mothers.”
Some solutions were suggested by Murphy. She argued that domestic violence and child sexual abuse should be handled by criminal court and not left to the intervention of social workers and family court judges. She also argued for civil rights, regarding gender discrimination, and human rights issues to be brought to the fore. She stressed that violence against any person based on who they are in society is a crime against the fabric of civilized democracy.
I met with Damon and his mother. They had both come to the conference and appeared calm and collected and very relieved Damon is now free to take up a more “normal” life. Conference events concluded with a march and vigil with advocacy group, Mothers of Lost Children outside the White House, followed by a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill at the invitation of the NSCC.
Damon’s mother, Cindy Dumas, addressed a crowd outside the White House:
“I’m here to speak out for other kids and hope the public become aware that this is a very serious and prevalent problem in our courts. Our Family Court judges every day give custody of children to abusers and molesters. This is not an accident. It is not out of ignorance and incredulity. It is a systematic, methodical cover-up of abuse, especially of sexual abuse. Just like Penn State, the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. We have to do something about it. Kids are suffering. There are thousands and thousands of children suffering because our Family Court judges are handing them over to abusers.”
The NSCC is supporting Mothers of Lost Children in asking for a Federal Oversight Hearing into the violation of civil rights when protective parents lose custody of the children they are trying to protect.
Compelling evidence was presented to senators and congressmen outlining the failure of family courts in the 50 States to protect victims of domestic abuse and their children during divorce and custodial hearings. The follow-through from these meetings is expected to gather pace in the coming weeks as the mothers continue to organize and hone their campaign for justice and safety for their children.
Members of the NSCC met with staff members from the offices of Senators Durbin, Franken, Boxer, Feinstein, Casey, Gillibrand, Hagan, Brown, Portman, Menendez, Schumer, Toomey, Thune, Leahy, Sanders, Kaine, Lautenberg, Reid, and Merkley, along with Congress members Conyers, Hoyer, Cardenas, Maloney, Neal, Poe, and Costa. Initial responses were encouraging, and behind the scenes, the work goes on.
A strong supporter of improved justice and safety for protective mothers and their children is White House advisor to the Vice President on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Lynn Rosenthall. She has openly acknowledged the high levels of discrimination against women in family courts. Rosenthall is encouraging protective mums to petition for change. She has offered to use her position to pass on any targeted recommendations stemming from the conference and its aftermath to Congress. She said a Federal task force was being convened to respond to the Family Court crisis.
One, wheelchair-bound mother told representatives of the Congressional Judiciary Committee her back had been broken by her violent former husband and her eldest son had committed suicide while in the care of his family. She said the combined trauma and tragedy had limited her ability to maintain employment and yet she’d been court ordered to pay child support to her custodial ex. She described how she’d been put in jail for accepting and smoking a cigarette after the judge told her she was under order to hand any gifts over to her ex in lieu of child support. She said he told her she should have sold the cigarette and given the income to her former husband.
Hearing her story and others, Ron Legrand, Democratic Counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary said:
“I’m truly shocked and disturbed. Once in a lifetime something comes along that you feel you have to go out on a limb and give your all to support. This is such a cause.”
Likewise, for Nevada, Senator Reid’s office promised to do whatever it took to bring some satisfactory resolution to the dire state of custody rulings in the Family Court and the clear failure of the court system to keep children safe.
Dumas’ story is typical of protective mothers around the nation. Lobbyist, Connie Valentine, a vocal member of the California Protective Parents Association (CPPA), said she’s observed over the years of attending the conference:
“One mother can start her story and another can finish it. Specific details may be different but the general stories are all the same.”
Since the inception of BMCC, ten years ago, mothers have shared how they and their children suffer, often years, of abuse from their partners. They’ve described domestic violence that can manifest as physical, psychological or sexual in nature. They’ve agreed all forms are interrelated, equally threatening and totally unacceptable. They’ve told how they are wrongfully profiled by judges, attorneys, and an assorted variety of custody evaluators as being the parent most responsible for the collapse of the marriage, the hostility of the divorce and any detrimental effects on the children.
Victimized mothers injured first by their abusers and then again by court processes, have persistently identified the act of making an allegation of abuse as the trigger that results in an onslaught of false accusations and misrepresentation from the opposing party. Too many times, protective mothers have sought to defend themselves and fight for the safety of their children, only to be undermined by court practices.
They’ve found no alternative but to take the child into hiding and face very serious charges of abduction. When mothers have chosen not to run, but to continue in a seemingly never ending fight for custody of their child, they have found themselves forced into bankruptcy or facing jail sentences when they cannot pay child support to the custodial father.
Phyllis Chesler’s advice to battered mothers is stark and dramatic. She said:
“Battered mothers need excellent court representation and the best lawyers, often exemplified by those prepared to represent a mother pro bono. These lawyers are prone to ‘burn-out.’ Helping a custodial embattled mother is very demanding.”
“The police do not rescue abused children. In fact, the courts often award custody to their abusers and severely limit or cut altogether the “crazy’ mothers’ visitation. When such mothers finally run away to save their children, they are routinely captured, imprisoned and lose access to them for a very long time.”
Chesler likened the plight of battered mothers to: “the days of battling for Jews wanting to escape Nazi torture and control.” Conference attendees asked her whether it was necessary to launch another world war to keep children safe in America.
Luckily for Damon, in Nevada a marriage license can be obtained with notarized permission from one parent only. He could therefore pursue emancipation through marriage without seeking his father’s approval.
The worst of his personal war is over and yet he is keen to stress he does not see this as a victory:
“I didn’t beat the system, I circumnavigated it,” he said. “I spoke to numerous professionals and none of them protected me.”
His experience has led him to become a staunch advocate for children’s rights and his closing comment, aimed at protective mothers and other child victims of abuse, was chilling:
“One in five kids is sexually abused. It’s not as if the professionals don’t know what they’re doing, they deliberately cover-up abuse. They are entrenched. If you don’t recognize it’s deliberate, you may make the wrong choices and then you won’t be able help yourselves.”
Clare Hardy O'Toole
Hera McLeod, is a special education teacher and mother of Prince McLeod Rams who was murdered by his father on an unsupervised court ordered visit has given a moving testimony.
In an open letter to Jude Michael J. Algeo of Montgomery County (full text at cappuccinoqueen.com); the bereaved, battered mother writes:
“Dear Judge Algeo,
You may not remember me, but I will remember you for the rest of my life….
I was the woman who came into your court room begging you to keep my son safe from his father…
I watched my son’s body slowly shut down for nearly two days as I waited for the doctors to officially declare him brain dead. As I watched my innocent baby boy die, I thought about you. I remembered how you told us you hated Family Court.
I remembered how you blamed me for falling in love with a con man. I remembered how you talked about fairy dust and how you explained that my son would need to come home with cigarette burns before you would believe Luc was abusive. I remember how you rolled your eyes, appeared to fall asleep on the bench, and opened up your computer as if to read your email – you did all of this as I pleaded with you to keep visitations supervised…..
You told us that you made your Custody decision based on what you would do if he was your child….
How terribly sad it is that you have become so jaded that when a mother comes to you pleading for your help, you dismiss her concerns as merely those of a scorned woman. Prince deserved better. He deserved to live just as your own child would have…..
I can’t stop thinking about how my life would be different if I hadn’t trusted you – if I had fled the country – if I had simply refused to comply with the court order.
Sadly, the story of Prince McLeod Rams is not unique. The testimonies of protective mothers who have lost their children in disturbing custody battles are increasing in volume. At the annual BMCC, on the Internet, among advocacy groups and catalogued by legal researchers, their stories of injustice are gaining ground. They tell of courts dismissing or trivializing material evidence of abuse, favoring fathers’ rights over child safety and displaying entrenched prejudice toward mothers.