U.S. judges routinely force abused children to live with their abusers.
But after nearly a decade of trying, I have given up on the mainstream media doing any significant investigations into this ongoing human rights atrocity. My name is M.C. Moewe. I have worked at several newspapers but my last full-time job was in 2008 as the investigative reporter for the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
My first day on the job, an editor handed me a stack of files asking me to look into a family court custody case. I was surprised, because as anyone who has worked in a newsroom can tell you, there are frequent calls from distraught parents alleging that the other parent is doing something horrible to their child and no one will help.
When that happens, a young reporter listens intently to the caller and then rushes over to their editor, who promptly explains to the newbie that this is a he-said/she-said case simply too difficult to write about. A seasoned reporter listens for as long as they have to, then hangs up without even bothering to tell their editor.
But I had been assigned such a case.
My first job after college was as a crime reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Back then, I had noted that violence inside a family home was hard to write about. I led a team of reporters who investigated how domestic violence was handled by authorities in Fort Worth.
I had to sell my editors on that series. But I was lucky, because Joan Krauter and Lois Norder were incredible editors. I wouldn't realize how rare that was until later in life. The series won several awards and city policies were changed.
So when I got this assignment in Daytona, I felt it was right up my alley. I narrowed in on the custody evaluator in the case. Judges in family court across the U.S. use outside custody evaluators who have enormous power in deciding who gets custody of a child. According to the evaluator, the child's cries of sexual abuse were not credible because the child had a mental disorder.
Other health experts I interviewed were aghast at that theory. I found no evidence that the child had a mental disorder. Even if the child did, other experts told me that children with mental problems are even more likely to suffer abuse because they are more vulnerable to predators. One issue had nothing to do with the other.
I started looking at other cases involving this evaluator. I soon found two other family court cases where the same custody evaluator declared abuse allegations were not credible.
All three of the parents who feared their children were being abused lost custody. One never saw her daughter again -– no visitations, nothing. In the two other cases, for nearly a decade now, both parents remain on supervised visitations, seeing their children for only a few hours each month.
Ironically, had these parents been convicted of a crime, the path to being reunited with their children would be more clear. In criminal courts, parent-child relationships are ended only as a last resort and supervised visitation is accompanied by a written case plan that includes specific steps to reunification.
Family court has no such requirements.
After more than a year of investigating I produced a well-documented story, but, before the story was published, I was laid off along with 100 other employees. It was a double blow for me. Finishing an investigative project is a long and painful process. In the end, if you don't believe in your facts, then you haven't done your job.
My facts indicated that children's reports of abuse were not being handled properly and, very possibly, the children were being court ordered to live with their abusers.
It's a belief that keeps you up at night.
I sent out lots of pitches to other publications. Finally in 2011, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting agreed to run the story. For several months I updated and dug deeper. But ultimately, FCIR didn't run the story, saying it was the custody evaluator's opinion against the parents.
I understand this is a hard topic to write about. (For that version, I did a rare thing and changed the names of all the family members I was writing about, leaving only the court officials' names real.) No one in the story has been convicted of a crime. If someone does file suit, it goes into the very court system you are writing about and is decided by the same judges who rule that system.
But how, then, can a reporter ever shine a light on this dark area of family court?
My FCIR editor was apologetic and offered to pay for the article anyway. Instead, I asked to be assigned a story that they would run so I could try to shake the disappointment off and get my career back on track.
I wrote a story about leaking petroleum tanks. It did not help me sleep at night.
Meanwhile, I kept getting calls from distraught parents. Now I know around 30 parents who have lost contact with their children after voicing fears in family court that they were being abused.
I had long thought of journalism as my calling. I couldn't imagine doing any other job. But like a cop who can't get past an unsolved case, I found moving on to another story difficult. If I couldn't shine a light on a problem as bad as this one, then journalism just didn't fit with me anymore.
So I decided to come here and write what I normally call thumbsuckers –- stories that explain how a system is broken –- about our family court system.
In my next installment, I will tell you about custody evaluators and their role in the system. I'll introduce you to Stuart Greenberg, a pioneer in the court custody evaluator field who committed suicide after being arrested for secretly filming people in his office bathroom.
To this day, as I collect documents from these cases, often the custody evaluation forms that the parents fill out have tiny script at the bottom that reads "Copyright 1984-97 Stuart A. Greenberg, all rights reserved."
M.C. Moewe is a former criminal justice and investigative reporter for several U.S. newspapers with a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Texas. Email m AT moewe.com or use this link.