More money passes through family law courts than all the other courts combined. Corrupt judges have unchecked power over your personal finances and your childrens’ lives. The lawyers are likely contributing to the judge’s re-election campaign.
These are the disturbing claims that two groups working to change America's family court system agree upon. But they haven’t joined forces because the groups — domestic violence victim advocates and men’s rights activists — are often at odds with each other.
“The rub is whether a parent accused of abuse is really a good parent being falsely accused,” said Joseph Sorge, who has organized an unprecedented November 15-16 conference in Virginia that brings members of both groups together. “I recognize there are bad people and molesters. These are issues that have to be dealt with.”
Sorge wrote and directed a new documentary, Divorce Corp, that takes on the $50 billion a year divorce industry and advocates for shared parenting to be the default position of the courts.
But in a world where fathers produce much of the child porn confiscated by authorities, domestic violence advocates fear an assumption of equal custody for children as a danger.
Sorge, a 60-year-old Harvard educated doctor who built and sold a biotech company, got the idea for the film after the unhappy experience of his own divorce, which he describes as mild compared to the stories told in Divorce Corp. He acknowledges that the film does not delve deeply into the issue of how the courts handle abuse.
“You only have 90 minutes and you have to pick your focus,” said Sorge. “The film shows how the system is about making money off the people who come to the courts. The children are in the middle of the money-making machine. The problem is that the machine does not care about the outcome for the children, just that it can fuel and feed off of conflict.”
Kathleen Russell, the director of the Center for Judicial Excellence, saw the film and decided to fill in the blanks for Sorge. “The film effectively exposes some of the financial corruption that is rampant in our nation’s family courts but ignores the voices of the children whose lives are most impacted by the crisis,” Russell wrote on the non-profit’s website.
Russell produced three web videos where children tell how family court experts, lawyers and judges wreaked havoc on their childhood. One young man said he was taken away in handcuffs at age 12 and not allowed to see or speak to his father or siblings for four years. Two young women tell how the courts ordered them to live with an abusive parent.
Any proposed reform would have to address the issue of abused children, Sorge said in a phone interview on Friday. He has invited several child custody abuse experts to the November conference but so far, only two are on the tentative schedule.
Some experts are concerned about coming to Sorge’s conference because in the film he prominently features former Fathers and Families executive director Glenn Sacks, a polarizing figure who often claims that victims of abuse are lying. “One of the biggest problems in family court is there are so many false accusations, and so few consequences for those accusations,” he says in the film.
“False accusations are used to gain custody, to gain control of property, gain control of the house, to gain control of the financial assets, to gain more alimony, more child support. The stuff goes on all the time, yet there’s very little in the way of punishment for false accusations or accountability.”
Joyanna Silberg, a psychologist and child abuse expert who has agreed to speak at the Divorce Corp conference, adamantly disagrees with Sacks. “Studies have shown that false allegations of child abuse are rare,” Silberg said in a phone interview.
A 2004 study by two Canadian professors of 7,672 child abuse investigations found that only four percent were intentionally fabricated. In cases involving a custody dispute it increased to 12 percent, but children and mothers were the least likely to falsify a claim.
Though one of her colleagues refused an invitation to the conference, Silberg said she felt it was important to attend. “My personal desire is never to boycott anything that I am invited to, in principle. Even if the environment might be hostile.”
In January 2011, Sacks wrote an antagonistic CNN iReport disparaging the Battered Mothers Custody Conference, a group that has gathered for more than 10 years to address the issues facing abuse victims in family court. He lists each of the speakers and characterizes them as a problem for men. Sacks described Silberg as a “psychologist and leading proponent of the idea that Parental Alienation is a fathers’ rights ‘hoax’ or ‘myth.’” (Parental Alienation Syndrome is a term discredited by many psychologists where one parent is blamed for a child’s adverse feelings about the other parent to the point that judges ignore abuse claims by that child.)
This year the Battered Mothers Custody Conference took place in Washington, D.C. Many of the hundreds of parents who attend, mostly women, have lost all contact with their children because a family court judge ruled they made false accusations of child abuse.
Sorge insisted that he is not siding with one group over the other. “We’ve been very careful to be gender neutral all along. We believe in equality and some people say equality means men’s rights and I think that’s sexist. We believe the courts should be gender neutral.”
But he figured out quickly that Sacks was not perceived as neutral. “Bonnie Russell objected to being in the same movie with him,” Sorge said of a domestic violence expert who was interviewed for the film.
Bonnie Russell appears three times in the documentary compared to 15 by Sacks. The film crew’s initial interview with Sacks was not usable, Sorge said. “[T]he first interview was from a male perspective, and since we find gender-biased viewpoints to be counterproductive, we asked for a second interview.”
At the upcoming Divorce Corp November conference in Alexandria, Virginia, Silberg’s discussion is titled “When Alleging Abuse Causes One to Lose Their Children.” Sorge said Silberg will be on a panel with an attorney who represents the viewpoint of a falsely accused father. “We very much want Joyanna there to talk about this issue,” he said.
Sorge said he had heard of the Battered Mothers Custody Conference. “I would love for them to participate in what we are doing,” he said. “I think they truly are victims of abuse. The group that I have problems with is the people who are in it for the money.”
This is the 11th 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.