The war of the american Justice system against mothers
Interview of Caroline Bréhat
By Francine Sporenda
Caroline Bréhat has been a freelance journalist In New York for ten years (under the pen name Natasha Saulnier). During this period, she has written and published « Kill Kill Kill, War Crimes in Iraq ? » with Marine sergeant Jimmy Massey in 2005 (Editions du Panama) and « Hot Dogs and Croissants, The Culinary Misadventures of Two French Girls in America » in 2015. Before « Mauvais père « (Bad Dad), Caroline has written « J’ai aimé un manipulateur » (I Loved a Manipulator) , translated in 8 languages. She lives now in Britanny (France) and is a translator for the PNUD and UN Women.
FS : In your book « Mauvais père », you tell the story of the struggle of a French born mother living in the US trying to protect her daughter from the manipulations and agressions of her husband described as a psychopath. You describe the American justice system as completely dominated by the theories of PAS (Parental Alienation Syndrome), developped by Gardner. According to you, any woman who, during the course of a divorce, reveals that her husband has harmed her child—in particular if it’s sexual abuse—is immediately suspected of being an « alienating mother» (of inciting her child to reject the father). Coul you tell us about this PAS theory in the US ?
CB : In the American courts, the prevalent culture is one of systematic suspicion of the mother’s discourse when she denounces paternal violence—in particular sexual violence. This is a well organized system : as soon as the mother reveals paternal violence, the opposite side, the father and his lawyer brandish the PAS, and automatically, the accusations are reversed against the mother, who is branded « alienating » (pathologic) and can be punished by the transfer of legal and physical custody of the child to the abusive parent.
This is why many mothers can no longer see their child, except in the context of paid supervised visitations (the fees for these visits are very high in the US). Consequently, these mothers have been made totally powerless and have to watch the degradation of their child without being able to do anything about it. Some mothers are ordered by the court to comply with an order of protection of the child under a penalty of imprisonment.
I know mothers who have been jailed for violating this order of protection, one of them because she bought a gift for her daughter’s birthday and had not seen her in two years . This mother who has already spent six days in jail and has been sentenced to community work, now faces six years of incarceration and is accused of several criminal offenses because she has violated a fraudulent order of protection obtained by her ex.
There is a case that has attracted a lot of attention in the US : in this affair, the children themselves have been jailed becase they refused to see their father, as ordered by the judiciary order (Tsimhoni/judge Gorcyca) http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/oakland/2016/07/01/judge-lisa-gorcyca-guilty-misconduct-child-custody-case/86606918/. The professionals of justice and health are trained to detect parental alienation, to reward the most cooperative parent (the « friendly parent »), not to protect the child. In fact, the PAS has become a real cancer in the American courts of justice because it has destroyed the notion that the charges pressed for sexual assault are real and grave. PAS is a magic word, a formidable weapon which neutralizes paternal violence, coerces children into submiting to it and forces the mother to undergo a horrible torture—watch the déterioration of her child. In the US, the PAS creates situations that are totally absurd, even surrealistic: mothers who denounce paternal violence go from being seen as « primary attachment figures » (full time mothers) to being reduced to « marginalized mother » (authorized to see her child only during supervised visitations), then to « pathologized mother » (considered mentally ill and dangerous for their children), and finally « criminalized mother » (sent to prison because they don’t respect the protection order, run away from justice to protect their child, can’t pay the lawyers’ fees or experts’ fees ordered by the courts, or like me, are victims of false accusations by the father). This is why I wrote this book, I would like it to show how the US, when it comes to protecting children against paternal violence, is a perfect counter example, a scarecrow.
FS : Regarding the consequences of PAS for separated mothers, you use the term « witchhunt ». Can you elaborate on that ?
CB : When I denounced paternal violence, my lawyers warned me that I was taking big risks. They explicitly told me that I was entering a « parallel universe » and that « everything, absolutely everything would be held against me » because the accepted view in court is that mothers who denounce paternal violence during a divorce are lying to « monopolize » and alienate their child (one notes here the symbolic value of the word « alienation » which can mean either « appropriate », « become hostile », « separate » or « drive insane »).
The family court judge DeAnn Salcido from San Diego was forced to retire after having criticized publicly the way American family courts work ; here is what she says : « as a judge, I have been trained to be systematically suspicious of mothers who allege paternal violence during a divorce and to assume they are lying. During our training as magistrates, we were told over and over that we should be suspicious of these mothers. Based on this approach, I made a mistake, I did not listen to the mother and I gave custody of her child to the father who was a sexual abuser. Years later, this man was sentenced for sexually assaulting his daughter’s friends ». There is a short step from accusing the mother of lying to branding her mentally ill for the defense lawyers, whose strategy is based on a very old trick : accusing women of being mad. The mothers are literally trapped, they find themselves in an unreal situation, which is inextricable and very difficult to explain to people on the outside (you are doomed if you do and doomed if you don’t).
I remember crying and begging the doctors at the hospital who were examining my daughter , then aged two and a half, pleading with them not to report the abuse because my lawyer was afraid that if they did, I would lose custody. But the doctors had no choice, they had to do it. I remember being distressed and panicked because they did not understand what PAS is ; they probably thought I was hysterical. It’s ironic, because since I was under stress, I behaved like the « pathological mother » I would be soon accused of being. One must know also that, in the US, the word « alienation » is no longer used, this concept has been discredited—and rightly so. Now mothers are accused of « enmeshment », of « mental illness », of « borderline disorder », of « delusions » and of being « helicopter moms » (a mother so pathologically attached to her child that she « hovers » over him constantly, like a helicopter).
FS : You say that, if this theory is widely accepted, it’s because fathers’ rights movements have lobbied intensively and efficiently. Could you tell us more about these fathers’ rights movements and their influence ?
CB : These associations are very powerful and efficient, and particularly so in English speaking countries. They have been built around the myth of mysandric women (a paranoïd theme) and of the excesses of these women who have gained too many rights and have become uncontrollable.
Their key issue, besides the violence of women on men, is now the defense of divorced fathers’ rights. They have influenced legislation so as to drastically reduce the sentences incurred by violent fathers and they have infiltrated the justice system, child welfare services and psychiatry. There are federal subsidies programs that have allocated $ 500 millions in 2010 to promote responsible fatherhood.
They use the book « Screw The Bitch : Divorce Tactics For Men » to provide advice to divorced fathers so they can get custody of their children. According to Barry Goldstein, a lawyer specialized in this field, « few people know that these lobbies, behind the « nice daddies deprived of their parental rights » image sold by the medias, are in fact groups of abusers who use the child to get back at their ex- wife and are waging a real war against women ».
FS : You say that there is a whole « predatory industry of divorce » that has developped for the benefit of the lawyers, psychiatric experts and parental coordinators who gravitate around these highly conflictual separations. The mother in your book must sell her apartment to pay for these expenses. Could you tell us about this « divorce business » ?
CB : The American divorce industry amounts to a total of $ 50 billion per year, which is more than any other US court. The majority of divorce cases that go family courts are « highly conflictual », a euphemistic expression which means domestic violence is involved. When the parents cannot reach an agreeement, the judge designates an expert to do a psychological expertise on the family.
The best experts in Manhattan can bill you between $ 30 000 and 40 000 for an expertise. The judges appoint parental coordinators to avoid having to grant authority to a single parent. These parental coordinators are responsible for settling religious, educational or medical differences between the parents, and their fees range between $ 300 and 600 per hour for each parent. The child’s lawyer and the parents’ lawyers cost between $ 400 and 700 per hour. The supervised visitation centers also bill exorbitant fees. All of them require upfront provisions ranging between $ 5 000 and 15 000. Sun Kelley, who had a medical attestation from an eminent Harvard psychiatrist stating that her son had been the victim of major sexual abuse, had to pay $ 86 000 to the child’s lawyer (and was threatened to be thrown in jail if she did not pay this amount on the day of the hearing) as well as $ 123 000 for supervised visitations. I had to pay nearly $ 200 000 dollars in legal fees.
FS : You mention in your book that the Hague International Convention of 1980, which was designed initially to prevent the international kidnapping of children by their fathers , can also be used by fathers against « protective mothers ». Can you explain why, and give us examples ?
CB : The profile of the abductor parent has changed a lot. Often, it’s the mothers who are going back to their native country to flee domestic violence and get support from their family. But again, in the eyes of justice, the reality is distorted and stereotypes take over. This type of abduction is usually considered as indicative of a bad parent wishing to harm the other parent by depriving him of his child. The authorities of the countries having ratified this convention consider that mothers should go to court to get the authorization to take their child to their country instead of abducting him/her in a totally irresponsible manner. But alas, it’s not that simple ! First, in the US, legal fees are very high. Second, in this country, a petition to relocate is very risky and bound to fail, the judges see it as an attempt by the parent to alienate the child. Desperate and at the end of their rope, mothers who seek refuge in their family are systematically suspected of trying to manipulate the justice system with false allegations of violence. Studies conducted by the Dean of the Faculty of Social Welfare of the University of Berkeley show that the courts decide almost always in favor of the return of the children to their violent father, without concern for their safety.
French version :
« La guerre de la Justice américaine contre les mères »
Useful links :
– « Small Justice : Little Justice in America’s Courts » (documentary film) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNXqDgSAOt4
– « Parental Alienation Syndrome and Alienated Children – getting it wrong in child custody cases » By Carol S. Bruch http://www.thelizlibrary.org/bruch/bruch-expanded.pdf