Custody in Crisis: How family courts nationwide put children in danger

Six years ago, in 2010, an appellate court in Tennessee affirmed a family court ruling that had awarded Darryl Sawyer* primary custody of his six-and-a-half-year-old son, Daniel.

The court ruled in favor of Sawyer despite evidence presented by his ex-wife that alleged he had sexually abused their child.

Three years earlier, Daniel returned from a visit with his father with suspicious bruises on his bottom. His mother, Karen Gill, immediately took the three-year-old boy to his pediatrician. “Your instant reaction is that you don’t want it to be what it appears to be,” Gill said, choking back tears at the memory. “You really hope there’s another reason for why he has these marks on him.”

But the doctor, Victoria Rundus, confirmed Gill’s worst fears. Dr. Rundus reported to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services that she found reddish blue bruises on the child’s buttocks that could only occur from an adult “holding his buttocks forcibly open.”  Gill thus began a long, arduous battle – that continues to this day – to protect her son.

Gill expected resistance from her ex-husband, but was surprised and shocked to find herself facing an even more formidable obstacle to her son’s safety in family court.

By the time the case was heard by a Tennessee family court judge in 2008, the state’s Department of Children’s Services had already investigated and had determined that Sawyer “‘was indicated’ as the perpetrator of sexual abuse of [their son],” according to court records.

*All of the names of family members involved in custody cases have been changed to protect the children’s privacy.

Nevertheless, the family court judge granted primary custody to Sawyer, warning Gill that if she wanted unrestricted visiting rights with her son, she had better quit talking with the boy about the alleged abuse by his father. What’s more, she had to stop taking her son to doctors to be examined for signs of abuse.

Why did the court give the boy to his father despite credible evidence of abuse? It turns out the family court relied heavily on the recommendations of William Bernet, a psychiatrist and court-appointed custody evaluator. He convinced the family court to ignore the medical report, stating that Sawyer was not a pedophile or child molester and should be awarded custody of Daniel.

Other factors played into the court’s decision as well. Gill had earlier tried to restrict Sawyer’s access to the boy based on allegations that the court deemed unfounded. Gill’s suspicions were aroused, she said, because Sawyer had told her of a family history of incest. She feared Sawyer, in turn, would abuse his own children. Other allegations included comments by her ex-husband that “Satan speaks to him,” physical and verbal abuse toward her and threats of suicide. None of this, the court said, could she prove.

Dr. Bernet declined to comment on the case.

Daniel’s case is not unique.

In family courts throughout the country, evidence that one of the parents is sexually or physically abusing a child is routinely rejected. Instead, perpetrators of abuse are often entrusted with unsupervised visits or joint or sole custody of the children they abuse, putting children in danger of serious, often life-threatening harm, according to children’s advocates.

Our two-year investigation – which includes interviews with more than 30 parents and survivors in California, Ohio, North Carolina, New York, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, Maryland and New Jersey – uncovered stories of children consigned to suffer years of abuse in fear and silence while the parents who sought to protect them were driven to the brink financially and psychologically. These parents have become increasingly stigmatized by a family court system that not only discounts evidence of abuse but accepts dubious theories used to undermine the protective parents’ credibility.

“Protective parents are asking the authorities to step in and protect their children and they’re not,” said Kathleen Russell, executive director of the California-based Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE), a watchdog group that focuses on family courts.

In scores of cases, the consequences have been lethal. News reports alone, while not comprehensive, paint a startling picture. From 2008 to 2016, 58 children were killed by custodial parents after family courts around the country ignored abuse allegations by the protective parent, according to an analysis of news reports conducted by CJE. In all but six cases, protective parents were mothers who had warned family courts that their children were in danger from abusive fathers who later killed them.

“The authorities are blaming the protective parents and pathologizing them, and their kids are ending up dead,” said Russell.

How do family courts get away with these kinds of decisions?

“You can take the same amount of evidence to criminal court and a jury will convict beyond a reasonable doubt,” said attorney Richard Ducote, who represents protective parents trying to regain custody of their children. “And the appellate court will uphold the conviction and the sentence.”


“They’re concerned with the reduction of conflict `{within the family}` and getting along, which is good unless there is someone you need to protect the child from.”

But family courts have a different focus, explained Ducote, who also worked as a special assistant district attorney statewide in Louisiana prosecuting termination of parental rights cases. In theory they are supposed to consider first the best interest of the child. But in practice, Ducote said, “They’re concerned with the reduction of conflict [within the family] and getting along, which is good unless there is someone you need to protect the child from.”

Court records are often sealed, a practice intended to protect the privacy of children. As this investigation shows, however, it’s a practice that can put children in greater danger by blocking outside oversight.

Moreover, the high cost of litigation throws up a formidable obstacle for most parents fighting to get their children out of harm’s way. There is little research on court costs, but a preliminary analysis of a national survey of 399 protective parents by Geraldine Stahly, emeritus professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino, showed that, for some 27 percent of these parents who ultimately declared bankruptcy, the costs were about $100,000.

The high cost of litigation throws up a formidable obstacle for most parents fighting to get their children out of harm’s way.

No government agency tracks the number of children nationally that family courts turn over to their abusers, and existing academic research is largely regional.

No government agency tracks the number of children nationally that family courts turn over to their abusers, and existing academic research is largely regional. Advocates have tried to put a number on it by culling statistics from primary and academic sources. They estimate that at least 58,000 children a year end up in unsupervised visits with or in the custody of an abusive parent. A 2013 analysis in the Journal of Family Psychology cited studies that show that anywhere between 10 and 39 percent of abusers are awarded primary or shared custody of their children.

However difficult it may be to quantify, high-level government officials recognize the breadth of systemic failure. “It’s a terrible situation,” said Lynn Rosenthal, who served as the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women from 2009 to 2015. Before going to the White House, Rosenthal personally saw the extent of the problem while working with many state coalitions on child welfare and domestic violence. “We saw this all over the country,” she said.

How do abusers get custody?A big part of the answer lies in the very experts that courts turn to for help in evaluating the fitness and safety of pare

In sounding the alarm over her suspected abuse by her ex-husband, Gill ran squarely into an unexpected obstacle. Bernet and his colleague, James Walker, stated in a joint report that they used a battery of tests to evaluate Sawyer. They claimed that Sawyer tested as “low risk” for sexual offenses and was not a pedophile. These tests included a sex offender risk test known as the Static-99, the Minnesota Sex Offender Screening Tool, the Sex Offender Risk Scale and the Abel Exam for Sexual Interest.

But according to Anna Salter, PhD, who has conducted research with sex offenders for two decades, using such tests in family court is meaningless. “They can’t be used to determine if someone is a child molester,” explained Salter, who is the author of “Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists and Other Sex Offenders” and a consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Instead, she said, the tests were intended to evaluate people already convicted of child molesting to determine the likelihood of recidivism. The Abel exam, which tests for sexual interest in children, does not yield meaningful results, she said. “It is based on how long you look at the pictures of the children. There are now sites that tell you how to fake it – ‘just look away.’”

Beyond the tests, Bernet also wrote that Gill, not Sawyer, was causing harm to their son. “Since 2003, [Gill] possessed personality traits of parents who make false allegations of sexual abuse,” such as “strongly criticizing” Sawyer. Bernet also ascribed “narcissistic tendencies” to Gill, stating that she “appears to lack insight into the strong feelings and motivations that are driving her current behavior in casting [Sawyer] as a child abuser.”

Among his primary concerns, wrote Bernet, was that if Gill were allowed to continue questioning her son about his father’s actions, she would “induce [Daniel] to share her false beliefs.”

Bernet dismissed Daniel’s claim that his father had “put a stick in my butt,” writing that the child was, rather, making up a fantastical story under prompting by his mother. Similarly, he contended that an interview with Child Protective Services did not show Daniel was “capable of giving a simple, coherent description of a past event” Of the bruises on the child’s buttocks, Bernet noted that Sawyer said he thought they were from water slides at the two water parks that he and Daniel had visited two days in a row. His acceptance of Sawyer’s explanation at face value appeared to ignore a physician’s description in court records of bruises “shaped like thumbprints” that were “inside [Daniel’s] buttocks.”

Child Advocates Say

they regularly hear of custody battles similar to the Sawyer-Gill case in which an evaluator deflects the court’s focus on potential abuse by alleging that one parent is brainwashing the children to believe that they are being abused. This behavior is known as parental alienation syndrome (PAS) by those who embrace it and deemed questionable science by organizations such as the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the American Psychological Association.


As far back as 1996, a Presidential Task Force found a “lack of data to support” the diagnosis of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Citing this report, the American Psychological Association in 2008 declined to take a position on the “purported syndrome.”

Bernet, however, is among a faction of family court professionals trying to get PAS accepted as a recognized disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of mental health practitioners. So far, he and other advocates of PAS have not prevailed. Bernet said in an interview that “the actual words are not in the DSM-V [the latest revised version], but the concept is,” pointing to what he describes as three new diagnoses that each have features of PAS.

Dr. Darrel Regier, vice chair of the DSM-V task force, said that the DSM acknowledges that alienation can figure into relationship dynamics. But “we were very careful not to include in there a diagnosis of PAS,” he said, adding that “the international community isn’t buying PAS as a diagnosis either.” With respect to how it’s used in family court to discredit abuse, he said, “If there’s evidence of abuse, then that’s what should drive the courts.”

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges cautions jurists in custody cases “not to accept testimony regarding parental alienation syndrome or PAS,” according to the guidebook Child Safety in Custody Evaluations. It adds, “The theory positing the existence of PAS has been discredited by the scientific community.”

Many courts, however, have paid little attention to these recommendations. “There’s this myth out there that there’s over reporting of abuse when in fact, statistically, there’s an

underreporting of abuse,” said retired  Kentucky Judge Jerry Bowles, a co-author of the guidebook.

Judge Bowles, who trains his fellow jurists in domestic and family violence matters, said that it’s common for courts to believe that mothers press for no contact with their ex-spouses for reasons other than safety. He ties this misconception to lack of training and understanding among jurists about violence in families.

A pilot study by Joan Meier, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University Law School, supports Bowles’ observations. In analyzing 240 published rulings in an electronic search for cases involving custody and alienation, she found that more often than not, accusations of abuse did not block access to children in family court settings. In some 36 cases where a mother accused the father of abusing their children, the court nevertheless ruled in the father’s favor 69 percent of the time. The tendency to discount the mother’s accusation was even more pronounced where sexual abuse was alleged: In the 32 such cases Meier identified, the father prevailed 81 percent of the time. She is now working on an expanded study examining the same issues – including intimate partner violence – in some 5,000 cases with a grant from the National Institute of Justice.

Bernet’s characterizations of Sawyer as the good guy and Gill as mentally disturbed are consistent with a troubling pattern that organizations fighting to reform the family courts see in these cases. They include the Center for Judicial Excellence, the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project and The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence.

"The research shows that the family courts are a perfect place for abusers to get custodsaid former White House advisor Rosenthal.   “They can manipulate the evaluator; they can manipulate the [court- appointed] guardian; they can manipulate the judge. They make themselves look good and they make her [the mother] look crazy.”
Cynthia Cheatham, a Nashville-based attorney who represented Gill in her appeals case and whose practice involves helping protective parents fight to regain custody, agreed.

“They have Mom, who looks like she just stuck her finger in a light socket, and the perpetrator, who may have stuck his finger in his kid’s vagina,who looks like a very normal guy.”

Some custody evaluators appear to go to great lengths in their effort to normalize perpetrators’ behaviors. Thomas Hanaway, PhD, also in Tennessee, wrote that a father who had already been substantiated as a perpetrator of sexual abuse by the state’s child protective services “appears to be very fond of his children and even if he were engaging in sexually inappropriate behavior with them, in my opinion, he would be doing it in a kind fashion .” (Emphasis added). Hanaway did not respond to requests for interviews.

Alina Feldman, 16, of Dallas, Texas, wishes that disclosures of abuse she first made when she was four years old had been taken seriously by the court’s therapist and custody evaluator. Had they done so, it might have spared Alina what she describes as years of severe abuse and misery in her father’s care while separated from the mother she loved.

“He would hold a knife up to my neck and threaten to kill me,” Alina recalled. “He would take a knife and cut my arm. Sometimes he would choke me until I passed out. He would snap my wrists.”

Instead of taking her to a doctor, she said, her father would put her wrist in a brace until it healed. He would also twist her arms in different directions, she said. As she began puberty, he would sit on the toilet seat and watch her while she showered, she said. If she cried about missing her mother, she said, he punished her by withholding food.

“If he checked the mail, I came with him every time. I was never alone. I didn’t know my address. I wasn’t allowed to know it.”

Her father also kept Alina isolated, she said, adding, “If he checked the mail, I came with him every time. I was never alone. I didn’t know my address. I wasn’t allowed to know it.” Alina said she tried killing herself several times. “I’d take a bunch of pills, but I always woke up.”

Rachel Feldman, Alina’s mother, had asked the family court years earlier to modify the joint custody arrangements she had with her ex-husband, Jack. Four-year-old Alina had come home from a visit with him in January 2005 and described how her father had spread his “butt cheeks,” inviting her to smell.

Records detailing visits between Alina and the court-appointed therapist, Gail Inman, showed that the child said that her “father puts her hand on his penis” and that “his privates feel squishy.”

Inman, however, testified in court that she didn’t report the disclosures to authorities because it wasn’t clear if the incidents were “purposeful or accidental” and seemed to have happened “a long time ago.”

“I’d take a bunch of pills, but I always woke up .”

Rachel Feldman filed a complaint against Inman for not reporting the disclosures.

Later, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors sent Inman a letter advising her to comply with the statute that requires reporting of disclosures of abuse by a minor. Inman did not respond to emailed requests for an interview.

The custody evaluator in the case, John Zervopolous, told the court that living with her father was “a much better fit for [Alina ] in terms of parenting situation.” His reasoning? The father was better able than the mother to control the child during their office visits with him.

During his one scheduled visit to observe the mother’s interaction with her daughter, Zervopolous said the child resisted going into his office and also ran down the hall as her mother tried to coax her to come back, according to court records. Zervopolous acknowledged that he might have upset the child by asking her about the sexual abuse allegations in a meeting alone with her immediately before the family meeting. That the child was meeting alone with him prior to all of them meeting together was apparently unexpected, the result of a misunderstanding, and he said it also could have led to the child’s behavior.

But whatever occurred on that visit, Zervopolous saw it as a problem with Rachel Feldman’s parenting. He criticized her for allowing Alina to express anger and for giving her choices when she was acting up “instead of commanding her to do something.”

Zervopolous told the court that Jack Feldman’s psychological test scores “were within normal range.” In contrast, he described Rachel Feldman’s scores as indicative of people “who are immature…lack insight into behavior, have simplistic answers to problems and are often in conflict with others.”

Zervopolous wrote in an email response to a request for an interview that, “It is improper at best for me to comment on any case in which I

have been professionally involved. Further, I don’t wish to discuss any other family court issues.”

In 2006 Judge Susan Rankin awarded custody to Alina Feldman’s father. In her ruling, Rankin said that Alina’s mother would “endanger the physical or emotional welfare of the child if she spent time with her.” Rankin said that Rachel Feldman “has no insight into how her behavior impacts her child…coaches the child to say certain things…alienates the child from the father…creates the problems in her child that she complains of….” Rankin also barred the mother from coming within 1,000 feet of her daughter. If she wanted supervised visits with her daughter, the judge wrote, she first had to post $50,000 cash bond. Why such harsh terms? The judge deemed Rachel Feldman a flight risk “due to her emotional instability and belief that the father is harming the child.”

Then, in April 2012, Alina reported to a teacher that her father had pinned her down on his bed the night before and that she fought him off, escaping to her room and locking it. “I thought, Either way I am going to succeed in killing myself. If I tell, he’s going to kill me. If I don’t tell, he’s going to kill me. I cannot take it anymore,” Alina recounted.

An affidavit to the court by her then court-appointed therapist, Donna Milburn, confirmed the disclosure. Alina described how her father insisted “she was going to sleep in his bed that night” and how frightened she was. Within a month of her disclosure at school, followed by her therapist’s report to the authorities, Rachel Feldman petitioned the court to get sole custody of her daughter. Eleven days later, Alina’s father signed an agreement to terminate his parental rights. Alina says she’s relieved toe living again with her mother, although she continues to suffer anxiety and depression. “I definitely get scared sometimes because I think I see Joyanna Silberg, PhD, a senior consultant for child and adolescent trauma at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore, has identified 55 similar cases where courts granted custody to alleged abusers, and where the children were taken back to safety after another intervention.

While some of those children are managing, she said, “all of them have severe mental health wounds that last a lifetime – the lifetime knowledge of the betrayal of the system against them, of people who are supposed to help them [who] actually harmed them, that their word was not accepted as true.” These children also suffer from the knowledge “that the person they loved most in the world, often the mother, was disempowered to do anything to protect them,” said Silberg, whose research was financed  by the Department of Justice. Then there’s the “repetitive knowledge of the actual abuse they suffered and the harm to their bodies and souls for that.”

Parental alienation syndrome also made its way into a Cleveland, Ohio, custody case involving physical abuse. Family court Judge Judith Nicely awarded Leonard Doyle custody of his two children in 2012. In her order, Judge Nicely quoted from a custody evaluator’s report that the “mother was found to have demonstrated a pattern of efforts to alienate the children from their father, to remove father from their lives, and to convince the children that only she has their interest and safety at heart.”

Shortly after the court’s decision, Doyle’s 11-year-old son and his younger sister barricaded themselves inside their grandparents’ house and called 911. Each held a knife to their own neck.

“If you make me go with my Dad,” said the boy into the phone, according to a 911 transcript of the call, “I’m going to kill myself.” The teen and his sister had just been told by their mother that their father –who had physically hurt them, causing injuries requiring emergency medical care – had been awarded custody of them and control of whether or not they could visit their mother.

Doyle was a man already known within the court system to be violent, to download child pornography and to have served time in prison for obscenity. A 2008 sentencing memo by the U.S. Attorney’s office against Doyle said that an investigation of his computers by the FBI found that he had been downloading “numerous stories glorifying and salaciously describing sex between adults and children.” What made the material especially disturbing to the U.S. Attorney’s office, according to the memo, was “the fact that he was the custodial parent of small children at the time,” a serious concern that, the prosecutor wrote, “mandates a five-year term of imprisonment.”

The sentencing memo noted numerous encounters between Doyle and police, including a disorderly conduct conviction in 2003 for an incident in which he dragged “a bleeding victim by his feet on the streets.” In 2008, he was sentenced to 13 months in prison.

Leonard Doyle declined to address questions publicly for this story but rather threatened in a text message to file a lawsuit should “one false statement or misleading implication” appear regarding his case.

In late September 2008, not long before Doyle began serving time, his son called his mother, begging her to pick them up. According to court records, the boy said that his father had chased him over the lawn with his car. Frightened for their safety, Robin Doyle said that she picked up the children and took them to a domestic violence shelter, where they received counseling.

A doctor who had diagnosed the son with a mild concussion in another incident in 2010 testified in the 2012 custody case that she believed the boy when he told her that his father had hit him in the head. The incident had also generated an investigation that similarly determined that abuse was “indicated,” according to a letter by the Geauga County Board of Commissioners in March 2010.

The juvenile and family court judge’s guidebook cautions courts weighing custody decisions that “any allegations of abuse, whether made by the at-risk parent or the child, should be taken seriously.” But Judge Nicely discounted the child’s allegations despite a doctor’s confirmation that he was injured. She relied instead on testimony of the court-appointed supervisor for the visit, who said she had not seen Doyle strike his son and did not think the incident occurred.

Despite the abuse report, the judge wrote that the father had been “extremely patient during these proceedings,” and that he had “appeared to have matured.” In contrast, she said, the “Mother has done nothing to encourage the children to have a positive relationship with Father after his incarceration and has actively sought to keep Father out of their lives.”

Regarding abuse of the children, the judge relied on a report by the guardian ad litem, Sandra McPherson. In her report, McPherson explicitly stated that she “works with the premise that domestic violence by [sic] Father against the children did not happen.”

As is common, the court has sealed all of the medical and psychological records relating to the children.

Robin Doyle has not seen her children since October 2015, when she saw them over a two-week period, when the local “hospital did not want the children to be in their father’s custody,” said Doyle. At the time, her ex-husband had allegedly pushed their son, then 14, so hard that the boy’s hand went through a window, requiring emergency surgery, the children told police in statements obtained through public records requests to the local police.

Several months later, the children ran away from home, escaping to the nearby woods with just snacks in their pockets. Picked up by police, the children were questioned and read their rights. In a statement to police, the daughter talked about the injuries to her brother, and wept that they were terrified of their father, and afraid to go home.

“They won’t take these children’s pleas for help seriously,” said Robin Doyle, talking about the court. “They just ignore it.”

Robin Doyle filed a protective order on behalf of her children. Unbeknownst to her at the time, her ex-husband had filed a similar order against her. After two weeks, the children were back with their father.

“They won’t take these children’s pleas for help seriously,” said Robin Doyle, talking about the court. “They just ignore it.”

Joan Meier, who is also the legal director of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project, and provided an amicus brief for the Doyle case, ties the court’s actions to parental alienation.

“Once you’re labeled an alienator, you’re wearing a scarlet A and they will not even consider giving the children back to you even when it becomes obvious that the children are being harmed in the other parent’s care, which is what you reported in the first place.”

In a recent interview, Doyle said that she prays daily for her children’s safety. “I love my children more than life itself,” she told a reporter. “I miss them terribly.” She reflects on the comments of one attorney who said one day, she’ll be able to let them see all of the years of court pleadings “and show them that I never gave up.” Doyle is trying to figure out her next move.

I love my children more than life itself,” she told a reporter. “I miss them terribly.”

The outrage these family court decisions raise among children’s advocates is palpable. “You have an entire branch of government that is completely unaccountable to the public it serves,” said CJE’s Kathleen Russell. “You can’t prosecute mediators, custody evaluators, judges, so these people operate above the law, and until there’s accountability for these crimes against children, we’re going to continue to see this happening.”

One solution is to get Congress to take action on reforming the nation’s beleaguered family court system. A number of advocacy groups fighting child abuse and domestic violence, including Russell’s, have made some inroads.

A resolution asking Congress to recognize that “child safety is the first priority in custody and visitation adjudications” has been introduced by Republican Congressman Ted Poe of Texas and Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York. The resolution asks Congress to recognize that more than 15 million children annually are exposed to domestic violence and/or child abuse; that child sexual abuse is “significantly under-documented and under-addressed in the legal system”; that research confirms that allegations of physical and sexual abuse of children “are often discounted” when raised in custody battles, and that “scientifically unsound theories like Parental Alienation Syndrome” are frequently used to discredit reports of abuse.

Meanwhile, back in Tennessee, Karen Gill and her son, Daniel, are hoping for justice. The boy is back with his mother, and their case against Darryl Sawyer is now pending in criminal court.

Gill, a tall woman with a broad smile and dark circles under her eyes, remembers the years when she only saw Daniel on visits. He was different, more withdrawn than the happy little boy she had known. She was afraid to bring up her worries again for fear of losing contact with him entirely. But in 2011 – three years after Gill lost primary custody of her son – Daniel, by then eight years old, broke down on a visit with her and told her his father was sexually abusing him.

Wary of returning to family court, Gill contacted the FBI. An investigation, including forensic interviews with Daniel, led to a grand jury indictment of Sawyer on four counts of child rape and one count of sexual assault.

According to the FBI’s report, Daniel said that Sawyer raped him on Saturday afternoons in the master bedroom and also forced him to watch “sex shows” on a laptop computer in the basement as he was being abused.

The report also stated that Sawyer, a veterinarian, put Daniel in a “dog cage” and shocked him with an instrument “because he had talked to his mother.”

A hearing in criminal court has been postponed several times for a variety of scheduling conflicts.

Each failed court date, said Gill, has intensified an already oppressive anxiety in her. As long as Sawyer is free and not held accountable, she said, she will always feel vulnerable. “I feel hunted, like we’re prey.”

Asked to comment on behalf of his client, Sawyer’s criminal defense attorney, Ed Yarbrough, said “We’re not going to try this case in the newsroom. We’re going to try it in the courtroom.”

As for thirteen-year-old Daniel, he has waited four years to testify against his father. He’s hoping that if and when he gets his chance, this time he’ll be believed.

*All of the names of family members involved in custody cases have been changed to protect the children’s privacy.

Photos from top: Photos of street and house by Aishvarya Kavi; Photos of rain through a window by Sarah Breeze.

Art by Aishvarya Kavi. Design by Jessica Skorich.

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This story was produced in partnership with the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism and supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Have you had an experience with Parental Alienation or with family courts that you’d like to discuss with a reporter? Contact the editor at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Laurie Udesky

Laurie Udesky is an award-winning investigative reporter based in San Francisco and an associate of the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism.
Laurie Udesky


  1. I once called child “protective” services to report abuse that my children had reported abuse to me after a visit with their father.  This was in Washington County, Wisconsin. The CPS social worker I spoke with told me that it was none of my business what happens to my kids when they are on their father’s time … that I should just forget that I’m a mom when they are with him and go live my life.

  2. I had a case 28 years ago with just about the same situation except my daughter was 2 1/2 years old. After being returned to me after her time with her father I immediately had to take her to see her Pediatrician who told me, my sister was in the room that she had been sexually mollested, the Doctor called the police which came over spoke with the doctor and took pictures of my then little girl. I lived in Larimer County & he lived in Boulder County. The police issued a no contact on her father and wanted him to come into the police station for questioning. Though this happened 28 years ago speaking about it I still feel that pit in my stomach, a pain I would never wish upon any mother. My sister took me to her home after we left the the doctors office & after speaking with the Police. I remember throwing up & my body feeling paralyzed with what was happening. It was 12:30am in the morning & my sister comes into the guest room and says Jac, Thor is here with the Police and his attorney they have a signed letter from a boulder county judge ordering me to give him back our daughter.. it was the most horrible experience of my entire life..I begged for help from anyone that would her me, Channel 9 Ward Lucas interviewed the doctor who saw her but when he contacted Thor , well Thor contacted his attorney and his attorney just like squashed the interview a few weeks later he was given full custody over her restraining me from her. He had his attorney seal the court documents & praise God to date she has not remembered anything & I pray she never will. So You don’t have to tell me of a failed system, I lived it .. I’m one that will attest “money can buy anything “
    In this world anyway, I have no doubt he will answer for everything he did to the one who he could never hide the truth from, that one is God. One day he will meet his maker .. that’s the truth

  3. They need to start investigating and arresting judges who knowingly force children to go on unsupervised visits with their pedophile abuser, and in most cases give Full Custody to their pedophile abuser, as I believe this makes them an Accessory to the Crime. They are Domestic Terrorists who are destroying the US from the insides out. They are terrorizing the children and their protectors and those that care. They need to investigate why judges are being taught/threatened at judge schools practices which protect pedophiles? They need to investigate the law professors who teach/threaten this. What is really going on there? They need to investigate to find out if this is connected to #PIZZAGATE.

  4. The court in Lebanon, PA forced me to send my son to a pedophile for the first 5 years of his life until I was forced to flee the States in order to stop my son’s abuse and save our lives after the father mailed me a Death Threat, offered 2 men money to kill me and threatened to kill my son. The court ignored evidence and would not allow strong credible evidence in court, then Court Ordered me so I couldn’t get any more evidence.

    The paternal grandfather and two of the judges involved in my case were officials of the same political club for many years, the Lebanon County Democratic Club. The grandfather also hung out and played cards together with the judges and attorneys of Lebanon County at a secret club (at the time) called The Steitz Club. I was told by a man who used to go there that it was a cult. There was an initiation to get in the club. This club was only for judges and attorneys and those that they invited.

    After I fled, the Court turned me into a criminal ‘WANTED BY THE FBI’. That began when they had a court date where they never made any attempt to notify me about the court date – No Due Process. The District Attorney was one of the owners of the law firm the father used in the whole case – he had a financial stake in it.

    A year and a half later my son and I were picked up by the FBI. I was put to jail and eventually extradited back to Pennsylvania. The corrupt judges wanted me in jail for 15 years and my son send back to his pedophile father. Luckily, the government of Puerto Rico kept my son protected and refused to send him back to PA because of the evident dangerous situation he would be placed in if returned to PA.

    After more than 200 days in jail, an unbiased jury found me ‘NOT GUILTY’ because they found that I had good reason to flee. To the shock of everyone, the judges refused to release me from jail at that time. Almost a month later I was released after a Release Hearing.

    Advocates, including retired FBI Agent Lane Bonner, and I have tried for many years to get someone in government to do an investigation on the corruption in my case – all to no avail. I am very happy and relieved to see that finally the government is going after pedophiles.

    Retired FBI Agent Lane Bonner wrote, “The Kilmer experience is one of the most egregious violations of a citizen’s civil rights – not race related, that I have witnessed in over 40 years of law enforcement related experience. The matter begs for a thorough investigation. A simple review of what is already in the public record will support Ms. Kilmer’s allegations, yet Federal and Pennsylvania authorities will not ……”

    I believe that if my case is investigated, they will find evidence that the judges in Lebanon, PA have committed Fraud, Extortion, Racketeering, Perjury and Obstruction of Justice. I also believe that the judges in Lebanon, PA are accessories to child abuse and child molestation due to the fact that the evidence was there and they just ignored it and allowed the abuse to continue. I know of many cases similar to mine in Lebanon County, PA and throughout the US.

    To learn more about my case watch my video, ‘Mother and Son Exiled From the USA, Does Anyone Care?, which I posted on You Tube seven years ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27BpMtBP-2Q&t=25s

    No one should have to flee the States to seek protection from abuse and save their lives like I was forced to do with my 5 year old son.

    I wrote to President Donald J. Trump asking him to have my case fully investigated. Now lets see what happens.

    If you would like to help, you can write to the president asking him to have my case fully investigated, plus all of the cases where judges protect pedophiles, force children to go on unsupervised visits and give Custody to their pedophile abuser.


  5. Thank you for writing such a well-researched, and well-presented article. I only wish that someone would do this kind of investigative journalism down here in New Zealand, where the family courts are doing the same thing. If the public of New Zealand only knew what was happening in these family court cases, they would be shocked and horrified, and maybe it would help to spark legislative change, to actually protect children in these situations. However, the reality is that protective parents and their support systems are being silenced while their children are put into the custody of the abusive parents. The children’s disclosures of abuse are being discredited without reason, and the very credible witnesses for the children are discredited as well. I am praying that justice will be done, and that the decision from my children’s case will be overturned in the high court, so that it will then serve as a precedent for future cases in New Zealand. I keep hearing about other families going through the same horrifying nightmare that we have been through. The court-appointed psychologist who was involved in my case (and is clearly prejudiced by her belief in PAS) has been doing this for 30 years in New Zealand, on thousands of cases, and is probably therefore responsible for uncountable damage to the wellbeing of many, many New Zealand children (and their children too!). If only there was an investigative reporter here in New Zealand who could access such cases, and publicise the problem. This publicity needs to happen in all of the countries where PAS (and it’s derivatives) are used in the family courts. There needs to be a concerted effort internationally, and a documentary made that can easily be delivered to the networks and thus to the public. The damage to children and their progeny is massive. We have to band together internationally to stop this. The majority of people would be outraged that this is happening, if they only knew about it.

  6. The idea, suggested by “Researcher”that women are responsible for the majority of crimes against children is ludicrous. I have practiced family law for decades and that is not the way it works.

    The majority of sexual predators are male.

  7. When my children asked me to talk to child protection, I was told the children were not in need of protection because they have me. But they don’t have me when they are at his house? He interferes with mail and phone calls.

  8. En France le SAP envahit peu à peu nos tribunaux..au secours…les mères protectrices elles aussi sont de plus en plus désenfantées…cette horrible théorie est en passe de devenir internationale…l’union des défenseurs de l’enfance au point de vue international et la connaissance de ces pratiques auprès du grand public devient une question de survie pour l’enfance en danger. Merci pour vos engagements en tout cas.

  9. I fought this system for ten years in the state of PA. My ex husband won primary custody of the children largely due to the fact that he married the niece of a senator who had been Republican Committee Chairman for 25 years. After my lawyer had extracted every bit of money from me that she could she asked me why I thought I ever had a chance of getting custody with those odds. I had been unaware of the family connections. For years I had complained of excessive drinking by adults at a camp owned by the family and on camping trips which is how they socialized.. Sure enough, during Memorial Day 2008 my daughter had been allowed to invite a young school friend up there for the weekend. The boy was allowed to take off on a public road on a dirt bike wearing no helmet in a mountainous terrain. To add insult to injury, the boy had been allowed to take the bike out at dusk when shadows loom large and visibility is poor at best. He was alone and totally unsupervised. He drove straight off a cliff .He was killed instantly. It took 9 hours to locate the body. News coverage of where the “accident” took place and the fact that the boy was not wearing a helmet immediately disappeared from the newspapers. I was not permitted to see or console my daughter. I was not granted access to the police reports, even though I had legal custody of my daughter who for some reason I do not understand was allow to participate in the search for her friend’s body! She was 15 years old!

  10. Articles like this are heartbreaking but incredibly necessary. When I was a teenager, I ran away from my mother and her abusive boyfriend. I was called a liar by my family, many of whom will still not speak to me almost 15 years later. The courts and police that were supposed to protect me didn’t believe me, one officer even told me that my situation wasn’t nearly as dire as others in her caseload so she wasn’t going to look into it further. It didn’t matter that he had molested me, beat me, my brother and my mother too many times to count, because he was smart and could charm any social worker or judge he was in front of. The same man who chased my family out of our house with a carving knife could show up to court and testify that he would never do anything to hurt his family, and they would all believe him as we sat there terrified. Are there some mothers who don’t want their children with a harmless birth-father based on spite? Sure, but the research is not on the side of PAS. In the past 30 or so years since this ‘syndrome’ has been used as a defense in custody, over 97% of these cases had future evidence surface (either in incarceration of the abuser, or removal of the children) to find that the concerned parent had just cause. I am saddened to think that some of the posters on here citing misinformation may sway people to ignore this important and very real issue.

  11. You hit the nail on the head! This article speaks VOLUMES about what is going on in the court system. My son has started wetting the bed, has stress and axiety, is with a father that drinks and drives with him in the car. Because of the 50 50 custody law in PA I cannot get my son medical attention on so many levels. The childrens welfare and well being are not being addressed. When and IF they finally address it, it will be too late. The damage is already being done. We are in this horrific situation along with thousands of others. I have started a petition for All kids especially mine. Please see the link below. God please help us save these kids.

  12. The Stop Abuse Campaign’s Safe Child Act prevents this problem in three key ways. It prioritises the health and safety of the child above any other best interests of the child. It ensures courts use the latest research like the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study and the DOJ’s Saunders Study and that they stop using unscientific theories like the non existent Parental Alienation Syndrome, a ‘condition’ promoted by a man that advocated for sex between women and children. And it insists that courts use the relevant professionals; psychiatrists and psychologists are experts, but not in domestic violence or child abuse, expertise their lies amongst DV advocates.

    The bill has been introduced in Hawaii and Pennsylvania, we expect it to be introduced in more states in 2017. More details on the Safe Child Act can be found here: http://stopabusecampaign.com/adverse-childhood-experiences-study/preventing-aces/safe-child-act/

    • You know what? that was a pretty stupid comment you made. How dare you say that parental alienation is something that is made up or not real? So when A mom purposely keeps the kids away from their dad for 6 months at a time does not allow them to talk to him though hes not been charged with any crime nor has he been accused of anything but she does it just out of spite and hate towards him then Is that not alienations? When a dad has to go to court just to fight to see his kids parental alienation has already begun. No parent mother or father should ever have to fight a court or the other parent to be able to see their kids. And if anyone thinks that’s cool or that it’s OK you are fucken ignorant. Sorry for my language but this has happened to me. Why don’t you guys try fighting for everything regarding family court? Instead of one thing. You guys know as well as anybody on here that found the court is prejudiced they are biased they have no accountability to anyone they make up rules as they go they use no constitutional law they say what they feel like at any given moment and are Constantly and consistently unfair. Courts or should I say their judges will flat out lie to you right to your funnier face in the middle of a court hearing. It is absolutely horrendous what they are allowed to get away with on all levels. And when people like you come on here and tried to defend one side or 1 topic and not try to defend both sides or all sides in all topics then you are being biased as well. Family courts need to be fixed by someone. We all know it but nobody does anything about it. And those of us who want to do something about it we have no idea where to start where to go neither do we have any ability or someone who is actually inside the system to help us. But people are inside the system and they do absolutely nothing about it it is disgusting

  13. There are many ways for a parent to abuse a child. One of them is to make false allegations of abuse against their other parent. Parent alienation syndrome is as real as Munchausen syndrome by proxy. This article reads like it was written by someone suffering from such a disorder. The reason courts sometimes reject these allegations is that thousands of cases have taught them the sad truth of how despicably low some mothers will go to hurt the man they hate and gain the sympathy of others for themselves at the same time. People assume the truth of allegations in these cases because it makes them feel good about themselves as a caring and protective person. It really has nothing to do with concern for the child. Shame on all of you for buying this drivel.

  14. To me, the gist of this story is that there is dire need for better means to evaluate professionals who advise the courts and the “nonprofit” organizations which are writing the guidelines the evaluators use to lend credibility to their opinions. “QUESTIONABLE SCIENCE BY ORGANIZATIONS SUCH AS THE NATIONAL COUNCIL ON JUVENILE AND FAMILY COURT JUDGES AND THE AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION” appears to be much of the root cause of the problem.

  15. This is a huge problem across our country. Family court needs to be reformed with jury’s instead of one judge making decisions, better training for Judges in domestic violence where they actually have to pass a pre and post test before being allowed to sit on a domestic violence case, where children matter and their voice is heard in family court, etc. I have been fighting for children and adult victims of domestic violence for years and have seen first hand the bias, abuse and victimization that happens because of judges and attorneys in family court. We appreciate the good judges but they are fewer than the rest. http://www.theccbi.com is my website.

  16. Sole permanent custody of my children was awarded to my ex, a violent, abusive, and sexually deviant father. My daughter made 9 sexual abuse allegations, but the court, police, the GAL and even my own attorney’s called me crazy and vindictive. She is now 17 and has been in his care for 8 years. She is considered a emotionally disabled, she self harms, does drugs, is depressed, anxiety ridden, and recently went to jail for the first time for beating her father up. These tragedies were all too familiar.

  17. Courts do make mistakes and court bias does exist, but these 30 cases make themselves into cartoons when the only bias they can see happens only to themselves. Outside their bubble and contrary to their experience, most parents are all too aware the stereotype, ‘she gets the kids; he gets the bill,” is real. We should be unhappy every time a child is separated from either of its parents. These contestants are only unhappy they didn’t get the stereotype.

  18. Well done. An excellent job organizing and reporting on what always is tends a difficult and emotionally laden topic. This truly is one of the first reports on family court that I found to be helpful and offering a true window into the courtroom as a virtual court-watcher to see first hand the ongoing gender bias and misogynistic tendencies of judges, both men and women. Thank you for your dedication to this topic. Please recommend court watching as one of the ways in which to combat judicial discretion run amuck!

  19. People often don’t report abuse, claiming the protective parent will lose custody. That would seem illogical but this story proves how warranted those claims are.

  20. In the majority of cases of abuse and/or sexual assault against children, the perpetrator and abuser is their biological mother.*
    Women are more likely than males to be initiators of domestic violence; and males account for approximately half the victims.*

    It seems that the author may have been overly influenced and lead astray from reality by some who have the appearance of credibility.

    Consider that by DVLEAP limiting its involvement and assistance to cases where the victims of domestic violence are female, it discriminates based upon sex.
    If DVLEAP actually cared about helping child victims, how does it justify its refusal to assist child victims based upon the sex of their abuser (e.g. when mother)?
    DVLEAP has a history of ignoring abuse of children. For example, DVLEAP, has a history of refusing to recognize the actions and behaviors often referred to as ‘Parental Alienation’ as abuse. Parental Alienation is a more accurately described as Pathogenic Parenting; the actions and behaviors clearly meet criteria for child abuse as outlined in the DSM 5 (V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed)
    .. (Yet DVLEAP (Joan Meier with (apparently) no formal education in psychology, psychiatry, research methodologies, has and continues to argue that behaviors often described as parental alienation are not abusive to children.)
    It is reasonable to question, “what sort of organization is so willing to ignore child abuse? And why?”. DVLEAP engages in expressing opposition against having a form of child abuse recognized. (If one accepts that Meier is not ignorant, one must conclude that she ignores vast amounts of recent academic research by respected experts; instead preferring to limit herself to agenda based sources, that may be published and cited, but lack credibility).

    ‘Family’ courts are both broken and corrupt.
    False accusations of domestic violence and child abuse are powerful and effective weapons, used frequently in the context of divorce and especially when custody of children is involved. Those engaging in false accusation are very rarely charged or prosecuted, so they have much to gain (custody and money) and are at little risk. The false accusers often deceive others who are gullible and well intentioned…even professionals.

    Tragically, there are children who are victims abuse. Abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological/emotional and the perpetrators can be male or female. DVLEAP, not only consciously and intentionally chooses to ignore child victims of females, but it works hard to have specific forms of abuse ignored so that child victims go unrecognized and continue to suffer.

    * Rather than my listing sources, consider doing some research that goes beyond the myths promoted by agenda based groups.

    • The writer declines to use his name but I suspect I know who he is. The accusations are false; the insults are false; the distortion is on the PA(S) side, not coming from those who report abuse. Anyone serious about child abuse would see how outrageous the four cases described in this article are and would express distress over those proceedings. I rest my case. Joan Meier

      • Thank you Joan Meier for your research and for your advocacy. There are several follow-up resources for readers: author and DV expert, Lundy Bancroft; author and DV expert, Barry Goldstein; web site for the Center for Judicial Excellence; web site for “Moms Fight Back,” author Doreen Ludwig, “Motherless America,” author’s Donna Buiso, “Nothing But My Voice,” author JP and Brendan, “Don’t Hug Your Mother,” web site for “Nurtured Parent,” web site for MACCAbuse, etc. That is just the beginning. This subject(s) of: DV by Proxy, Maternal Deprivation, and coercive control has been bubbling to the surface for 3 decades now. It is well-known that mothers losing custody to vindictive fathers has been a gateway for post-judgement abuse of former wives and shared biological children. The movement is getting stronger by the day; the truth can only come to light. The now grown adults are speaking out: check out Amazon books for the book (memoir), “Don’t Hug Your Mother.” It is an eye-opener for those who believe that mothers are failing their children. It’s not the mothers but instead a system designed for profiting from marriages that cannot be reconciled. Thank you Ms. Udesky for shining some light on an injustice so profitable that it has taken 3 plus decades to expose. Blessings to those who advocate for our nations children and our global children. Thank you.

    • I’m assuming the poster won’t list his sources because it looks a tad silly to say, “Stuff I made it.”

  21. I fought this system and endured nine horrifying years of this abuse through the Colorado court system. My boys were given to their father at the final divorce hearing in 2006, despite the numerous police reports, testimony of neighbors and physical evidence of abuse. The statements in your article were nightmarishly familiar to those written about me. After nine long years of never giving up, by some miracle of the universe a team of professionals saw what was really happening and returned custody of my sons to me. Sadly not before nine years of emotional and physical abuse had taken place. My ex-husband walked out of court that day requesting his rights be terminated and has not even attempted contact with our sons since. My boys were 3 and 4 when he was granted custody of them. Thankfully now three years home with me, they are adjusting well, but sadly with so many demons to overcome, thankfully they are working on it. Although my fight is over, I continue to help others who reach out to me for help, even if it is nothing more than a shoulder to cry on, advice to navigate through this system, or to give them hope that this will turn around. Thank you for bringing a shining light on this atrocity of the family court system.

  22. A very difficult article to read, especially so when considering studies compiled by 3 federal governments, the US, the UK and Australia consistently show that the mother is considerably more likely to abuse and even murder their own children than anyone else. The 2nd party would be grandmother, aunts, stepmothers and strangers well before the father. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/child-maltreatment

    I do know a couple of the parties mentioned in this article, one of the females I would personally never allow anywhere near my children as there is no doubt in my mind she would at least emotionally abuse my children. I have personally witnessed her do so to other children.

    With regard to Dr Bernet, I am surprised that he did not comment as I have honestly always found him to be gender neutral with a focus on the true best interest of our children. With that said, I have also seen organizations mentioned in this article clearly state and fight for legislation to bring about awareness of Parental Alienation Syndrome, then months later, they follow up with a statement that Parental Alienation and the Syndrome does not exist. I am not a doctor of psychology even though it was my major, still, Parental Alienation is no secret, it is painfully obvious to all too many of us. Apparently some would have us believe that PA only exists if you are the party being alienated. I do not believe that is how Parental Alienation works. It is either an action taken by a parent to alienate the child from a parent, or it is not. it can not only exist in your particular case when it behooves you then it no longer exists when it is not in your particular case.

    It is my contention that there is no more vile a being than one who would sexually abuse our children. I also do not believe that there is a penalty that would suit such a crime. Unfortunately, we live at a point in time in our history where false allegations of abuse by mothers runs rampant in America’s family courts. When considering this factor into the scenario it is difficult for anyone to protect our children.

    I too have court watched for the last couple of decades. In fact I have done so in 12 states and in the last 2.5 years, I have spent over 900 hours in court rooms, all courts but primarily in family courts. My concerns are never matters of gender but the True Best Interest Of Our Children.. That is where we need to focus our efforts, on our children, not the gender war. It is time that we worked together, man and woman, husband and wife as a civilized society and in a civilized society I believe together we could work together and should have been doing so long ago because the abuse of just one child is one child too many.

    • I am genuinely curious as to where the ‘men are less likely to abuse than anyone else’ mindset is coming from. Don’t get me wrong, women can and do abuse as well, but I work for the court system and every study conducted by credible organizations puts the father as the abusive party 90%+ of the time. Articles like this one actually do a very good job of painting it as abuser vs. concerned parent, instead of man vs woman. It is also not just about parental alienation, it also tries to shine a light on court personnel not listening to doctors or the child in the situation. I experienced this firsthand as a child in the courts. Not one person in the court believed that my mother’s boyfriend was molesting me, even though I was 14 and nowhere near young enough to be confused by the situation. Then the one police officer who did believe me told me that my situation wasn’t nearly as bad as other ones in her caseload so she didn’t care to look into it further – this is why the part of the article which implied the father was sexually abusing in a ‘kind’ way was particularly disturbing. Please do some research with credible organizations. There are many feminazi organizations, and many menist ones, but there are also ones with real numbers from the courts.

    • I wish that people would stop saying “but women can also abuse!” long enough to just appreciate the horrors that these families have endured. I know that perpetrators can be female. Two of my abusers were female. Nonetheless, I don’t really feel your empathy when you don’t even acknowledge the ordeals these children have gone through until your 4th paragraph. Eugh.

  23. Thank you soooo much for your amazing journalism !!! Stories like these are all to common in our country..I have court watched for 2 decades and could give you lots of other sad tales,,I am a Co Founder and President of The Center For Judicial Excellence..Kathleen Russell has been our Ex Director for over 10 years..Luckily no one in my family has been through this agony..I feel so much pain for those enduring this kind of abuse…Some Judges are
    really Criminals because of their Judicial Actions..They are above the LAW..Jean Taylor

    • Jean, I am in Connecticut and have been in touch with Katleen over the past few years as well as meeting her at the Battered Mothers Custody Conference. I would love to touch base with you in person as I have so much respect for your outstanding perserverence to establish the CJE..I follow Kathleen’s work week to week. Please connect with me on Linked In at Betsy Keller PR and I will send you a message.

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