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 moewe.com or use this link.