PBS documentary detailing domestic abuse debuts Oct. 20

A powerful new PBS documentary, Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories, premieres Oct. 20. This compelling new documentary chronicles the impact of domestic violence on children and the systemic failure of family courts across the country to protect them from their abusers.

Galvanized by the upcoming film premiere, activists from across the country have joined forces to publicize the documentary and to raise public awareness of the issues it addresses. Sept. 28 through the end of October, recognized as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, will serve as an appropriate kickoff to the premiere of the documentary. During this time, activists will distribute fliers about Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories, and related information, in front of family courts in every state and U.S. territory.

Growing numbers of protective, non-offending, loving, and fit mothers are losing custody of their children to their children’s abusers. Women who seek to exit bad or even dangerous relationships are often met with retaliatory suits for child custody. Many women who try to leave an abusive partner find the family court system can become a place where the abuser is enabled, and even facilitated, in further victimizing her and her children.

The American Judges Association reports one of the most common reasons for resuming a relationship with an abusive partner is the fear that the abuser will act on threats of taking the children. In fact, studies show that batterers have been able to convince authorities that the victim is unfit or undeserving of sole custody in approximately 70 percent of challenged cases.

Little known among the general public is that, for almost two decades now, a controversial theory called “Parental Alienation Syndrome” (PAS) has been used as a courtroom tactic to silence abused children and their mothers. This so-called syndrome is not based on systematic research, is not recognized by mental health professionals, is not viewed as a psychiatric diagnosis, and has been rejected by valid scientists and ethical practitioners.

Nevertheless, PAS continues to be routinely used in courts across the country, resulting in the removal of children from loving, safe, and fit mothers to fathers who batter the mother, abuse the child, and/or have a substance abuse or criminal history. Often, the mother is given only supervised visitation; in many cases, she loses all contact with her child.

Although this travesty has been occurring with greater and greater frequency, the average person believes that when such cases do occur, there must have been something wrong with the mother to cause such a tragic result. A standard tactic used by abusers is to demonize the victim; all too often, the courts have helped such abusers by punishing the mother—labeling her as “hysterical” or an “alienator”—for seeking legal protection for her children.

Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories reflects the thousands of cases in which this has occurred across the country, and amply demonstrates the pattern of mistakes the court system has made to create these tragedies.

For more information, visit the Web site of batteredmotherscustodyconference.org.

From the Oct. 5-11, 2005, issue

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