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Sitting on a flowery couch, a 10-year-old girl recalls the first time her father raped her. She was three years old and tried to roll away, but there was little she could do when he pulled her towards him and took off her nightgown.

“I often wonder what would have happened if I had either cut, or at least moved that scene,” said the filmmaker who shot and edited Small Justice: Little Justice in America’s Court, a 2001 documentary that followed three parents through the U.S. family court system as they tried to protect their children from abuse.

A PBS executive had told Garland Waller that the opening scene was just too much and if she’d change it, the documentary might have a chance to air. “I wish I had been more flexible about changing the content,” said Waller, an assistant professor of communications at Boston University and a documentary film producer. “Because I refused to make that change, the conversation came to a dead stop. If the show had aired on PBS, would it have been the trigger for national change?”

Waller had underestimated what she calls the “yuck factor,” people’s unwillingness to deal with a distasteful topic like a parent raping their child. (You probably experienced it yourself when you began reading this story.)

Unfortunately, telling the story of child sexual abuse begins at home. A 2013 Tampa Tribune article points out that the number of children victimized by parents was nearly seven times that of children exploited by strangers.

This makes family courts a critical place to protect children. But few judges speak directly to them. Instead, they appoint experts who investigate and advise the court on what is best for the child. It’s a system that invites corruption — the experts are paid thousands of dollars by one or both parents, facts on how their opinions were formed are hidden from public view and state laws  shield these experts from lawsuits.

In 2012, Waller released another documentary on America’s broken family court system. This time, hoping to avoid the “yuck factor,” she focused on a family court case without incest. No Way Out But One tells the story of a mother who fled the U.S. to keep her children safe after a Minnesota family court dismissed evidence of physical abuse.

Armed with documentation of injuries, the mother was able to convince the government of the Netherlands that the U.S. court system would not protect her children and was granted asylum. The now-grown children say the Netherlands’ court did something that never happened in the U.S. The judge directly asked them to tell their story.

Waller still had no luck getting mainstream media airtime for the documentary. Only the Documentary Channel, a now-defunct network that aired independently produced films, showed No Way Out But One. “The media wants both sides of the story,” Waller said. “When one side denies abuse happened, that’s the end of the story … you have a silent scandal.”

This reluctance is carried into the news media as well. Reporting is undertaken on a story, but once the media outlet’s lawyers get involved, it dies quickly. Through the years, Waller can recall many times a story on child custody abuse came close to being aired or published. While at ABC's 20/20, Chris Cuomo spent five days outside of Chicago filming and interviewing subjects involved in a case, only to have the whole story pulled when his team got back to the office, Waller said. “Legal’s job is to keep the media from losing money by getting sued,” she said. “So they will pull a story, overruling editors and reporters. The legal department shouldn’t be the ultimate arbiter of stories, but it often is.”

In an upcoming new edition of a book, Waller wrote a chapter titled “Scandal in Plain Sight: How Media Indifference and Family Court Incompetence Fail to Protect America’s Children.”

As an investigative reporter, I wrote stories on these cases only to be told right before publication that the legal department had problems with the articles I wrote. I made changes multiple times to address their concerns, but nothing overcame their objections.

The lack of a place to take their stories leaves parents of at-risk children desperate, angry and isolated.

This is only my third story at Daily Kos on the topic, and already I have started hearing from some of these parents and the people close to them. I can offer them little hope that anyone in the media will do anything about their situation.

For this reason, I am urging them to come to this site and tell their story directly.

Just hours after my first story was filed on June 13, I got a long email from the sister of a parent who had lost her children in court after alleging abuse. When I told her why the media won’t cover this, she did not hide her disappointment. “Can you please explain this rationale to me that I get from media; I just cannot understand it. I appreciate your suggestion that the parent write their own story. It is not one that I have not considered, but do you not see how that itself can be used by the abuser against the parent (or her ‘agents’) as an attempt to ‘exploit’ their own children by the abuser? It would be an easy attack … and let’s be honest, that parent is already being attacked on credibility, which is why the story must not be from the parent but investigative reporters who dig deeper and come in with objectivity.”

She's right. Reporters should be doing this. People like Garland Waller are doing this. But until a brave media organization (and its lawyers) step forward, the public won’t be informed about the epidemic of cases where a parent loses a child after making an allegation of abuse. The story will have to be told by the parents themselves.

This is the third in a series of articles for Daily Kos about the treatment of abused children in the U.S. family court system. M.C. Moewe is a former criminal justice and investigative reporter for several newspapers with a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Texas. Email m AT or use this link.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Powerful and my personal nightmare of what can (9+ / 0-)

    happen as the mother of 2 daughters, this is my worst case scenario. Our court system is a failed non-justice system, IMHO. Women and children are still not seen as fully functional human beings and until we are is until the system gets corrected and abuse claims can see the light of day. So very sad.
    Thanks for the diary and links.
    Peace and Blessings

    “When you victim-blame, be aware that in all likelihood, at least one woman you know and love silently decides she cannot trust you.” ` Steph Guthrie

    by Penny GC on Mon Jun 23, 2014 at 08:35:39 AM PDT

  •  I don't think it's a yuk factor so much as (10+ / 0-)

    disbelief. Incest is so far outside some people's realities that they can't fathom it.

    I've lived it so my reaction to the first sentence was "Uh, huh, and then?"

    On the whole we don't treat children well in the US.

    I don't want to give the media a break but the one area where we do protect kids is to not print their names in the paper. I wonder if that contributes to stories not being printed.

    It may vary from state to state but many have court appointed lawyers for kids not paid for by parents and CASA workers.

    I was made an emancipated minor when I was 15. I doubt they do that anymore.

    Tracy B Ann - technically that is my signature. I scroll with my middle finger.

    by ZenTrainer on Mon Jun 23, 2014 at 08:57:15 AM PDT

  •  Tipped and Recc'd (8+ / 0-)

    Important stuff deserving of broad recognition.  Very powerful documentation at the link

  •  A convicted child molester that spent five (6+ / 0-)

    years in prison and is on Meagan's List moved five houses up from me. Apparently, he is not a "predator"... he committed incest with his 14yo daughter.

    Every neighbor knows, and there isn't one that isn't just repelled by his actions.

    I have not read his court case through, yet, but I intend to. I got a recital of the case per someone else, including a plea deal of some kind, but I don't know any of what I read to be true OTHER than the charges he was prosecuted on which are listed on Meagan's List site.

    The whole ordeal is just "yuckky" beyond my comprehension.

    The men in the neighborhood seem incredibly "yucked" out by all this.

    I suspect he bought on a private street so he couldn't be harassed. In essence, everyone ignores him... apparently harassment in and of itself as he claims he was innocent to this day and that his daughter instigated this (like that makes a legal difference somehow?).

    So, because he is ignored, he causes problems in other ways for everyone else.

    There just isn't any out for us so I can just imagine what children go through which is FAR more intense and personal. Poor kids.

    The only hawk I like is the kind that has feathers. My birding blogs: and

    by cany on Mon Jun 23, 2014 at 10:00:18 AM PDT

  •  I don't know (0+ / 0-)

    I don't know what would be worse; to know your child was being abused and not be believed or to be innocent of abusing your child and to be accused of it. As far as I am concerned, anybody what would make a false charge like that should lose custody of their child, but then that raises the risk against reporting it.

    Good girls shop. Bad girls shop. Shoppin', shoppin' from A to Z!

    by Zornorph on Mon Jun 23, 2014 at 10:52:04 AM PDT

  •  This is THE UNTOLD STORY in our media (3+ / 0-)

    Thank you so much for writing about one of the most neglected problems, Mary!  We really need your voice out there and your series is brilliant!

    We have had some good coverage by the Washington Post Editorial Board in the last couple of years...but the issue is so much larger, many-faceted and many-layered.  And everyone is so worried about what the legal dept. will say.

    One point I'd like to mention is that when a documentary, story or Op Ed or Editorial does come out, the MRA's (men's rights activists) immediately barrage the media with angry letters. Their goal is to intimidate and silence both the writers and the victims alike.

    The NYT just carried an Op Ed by Sara Shoener:

    My contacts tell me there is a hail-storm of furious letters to the NYTimes.

    Thank you for being such a strong voice for these children and their protective parents, Mary!  


    Eileen King
    Child Justice, Inc.
    Washington, D.C.

  •  Back in 2008, I thought the court system would ... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MCMoewe, peregrine kate

    Back in 2008, I thought the court system would listen to my daughter , and if they didn't listen, they would surely see her fear of her father.

    Even while she had a Protection from Abuse Order, CPS never stepped in to prevent her from 3 unsupervised full weekend visits. This is while he was on house arrest due to the fact that he violated the Abuse Order ( physically causing her bruises during a supervised visit), and while the investigation for sexually assaulting her was still active.

    Every US family court in this country is a 'for-profit' organization. A custody case is the only sure way of driving up the revenue. You have two parents, one will pay everything to protect, and the other will pay anything to gain access in order to shut them up.

  •  There is little a woman can do to help protect ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    There is little a woman can do to help protect a child from an abusive father. What would an average person suggest she should do?

    Doing nothing is a case of negligence. But a woman who talks about it to the media risks losing custody of her child, because of gag orders. Judges put restrictions on who can know details about the woman's case in family court.

    If every woman with a gag order was to stand outside her local courthouse tomorrow, the world could not help but notice.

    Evidence from outside sources is routinely dismissed. The child's statements are routinely seen as being " coached " by the mother.

    A mother's maternal reaction, which is understandably emotional, is routinely documented as being a sign she is unstable.

    Mothers are routinely denied the money required to fund a lawyer.

    The child is often removed from the mother even when the outcome of the proceedings is unknown and with complete disregard given to the emotional state of the removed baby/child/toddler.

    There is insufficient resources and safety checks in family courts, to adequately discover the truth to abuse allegations.

    A past history of aggression and abusive behavior in an ex husband is routinely dismissed in Family court.

    What are the options for mothers who are trying to help their children?

    The possibility that any child could be abused by their father, is of course plausible, but what would a mother do if her child has signs?

    Perhaps when abuse is a possibility, the case should automatically become a criminal investigation. Just Avoid family court, it is simply not equipped to fully investigate abuse.

  •  Excellent review of critical, but hidden issues (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Dear Mary,

    You deserve a medal for your dedication, courage & expertise to shine a light on critical, but hidden issues.

    PA's Child Abuse Reports Lowest In U.S. Due to Mandated Reporter Trap 6-20-14

    I also underestimated what WalDear ler calls the “yuck factor,” government’s & people’s unwillingness to deal with a distasteful topic (Waller calls the “yuck factor) like retaliation after my mandated report of child abuse and pedophile /pediatrician Earl Bradley indicted for 529 counts of rape and abuse of 127 children, incarcerated for life in 2011     If Bradley were stopped by the PA Licensing Board in 1994 or 1995, Bradley never would have harmed innocent children in Delaware.

    Unfortunately, telling the story of child sexual abuse begins at home. A 2013 Tampa Tribune article points out that the number of children victimized by parents was nearly seven times that of children exploited by strangers.

    Sheldon Kennedy , Former NHL player experienced, a child who is being abused has to tell – on average – seven people before their story is taken seriously, completely unacceptable.

    Thank you for your dedication and courage.



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