"Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories"

Nov 29, 2005

he PBS program, Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories, a documentary about the treatment of abused children in divorce courts, aired on October 20 and produced a large number of submissions to our CPB Ombudsmen's web site.

The documentary was produced by Catherine Tatge and Dominique Lasseur, with support of a grant from the Mary Kay Ash Foundation, and sponsored for the PBS schedule by Connecticut Public Television. Lasseur/Tatge are veteran producers for PBS programs including a number of segments for the weekly news show "NOW with Bill Moyers."

Prior to the broadcast, Connecticut Public TV released a statement from the producers:

"When we began this project over a year ago, our goal was to produce a documentary about domestic violence and children. We had no preconceived notions about the issue...no specific agenda to prove or disprove. The finished documentary is simply a result of where countless hours of extensive research and interviews took us."

Those writing to us at CPB or to our web site challenged that premise of "no preconceived notions," essentially raising two questions: First, did Lasseur and Tatge get their facts right? Then, did they present a balanced treatment of the issue, or, as some charged, did they cherry-pick their evidence to support only one point of view?

The producers used a series of on-camera interviews, primarily with mothers and children, along with footage from a Battered Mothers Custody Conference to build their case that divorce courts in America are unfairly awarding children to abusive fathers in custody battles. Expert witnesses, including a family court judge, an intervention specialist and a custody evaluator all testify to a common viewpoint. The abuse is vividly described by victims and mothers alike. All support the mother's side in custody proceedings involving sexual or physical abuse.

Citing statistics from the Department of Justice web site, David Purcell of California wrote to CPB, saying the documentary ignores the fact that of those who perpetrate domestic violence on children 60 percent are women. A number of other PBS viewers also cited evidence contradicting the main thrust of the broadcast.

An important element of the film is Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), where one parent systematically alienates a child against the other parent, often using manipulations and lies. PAS has become a common charge in custody battles, seemingly favoring fathers. In other words, in court proceedings, mothers are more commonly charged with using alienation techniques against fathers and fathers tend to win the custody fights.

The experts provided by Lasseur/Tatge debunk PAS as "junk science." At one point the film states that PAS "has been thoroughly debunked by the American Psychological Association." Contacted for verification by a number of critics and viewers, the APA's communications director stated:

"The American Psychological Association does not have an official position on parental alienation syndrome -- pro or con."

In this case it appears that Lasseur/Tatge plainly got it wrong. In a statement released to their website, the producers now say something quite different than they did in the film:

"We do not make the assertion that the phenomenon of alienation does not exist, simply that PAS seems to be wrongly used as scientific proof to justify taking children away from a protective parent."

Perhaps the most incendiary statement in the documentary, and the one that drew the most fire from critics, came from a custody lawyer for mothers:

"For the father to win custody of the kids over and against the mother's will is the ultimate victory short of killing the kids."

This, of course, spurred criticism from father's rights groups. Ned Holstein, president of Father's and Families said:

"A few groups are concerned about the accelerating trend toward joint custody of children and are striking back by accusing most fathers who seek custody of being batterers and child abusers. It's a shame PBS has dispensed with objective reporting and chosen to air an extremist point of view without looking at the political motives of the advocates it features."

The columnist and national radio host Glenn Sacks also cited legal research on the matter of PAS:

"Despite the film's claims, research shows that parental alienation is a common facet of divorce or separation. For example, a longitudinal study published by the American Bar Association in 2003 followed 700 "high conflict" divorce cases over a 12-year period and found that elements of PAS were present in the vast majority of them."

Another instance that prompted objections was the case of Dr. Scott Loeliger whom the film depicts as an abusive father. Loeliger charges that the show producers ignored extensive court filings, records and testimony that demonstrate conclusively that it was his ex-wife, not he, who abused their two daughters. He notes that his ex-wife was found liable in juvenile court for eight counts of child abuse, including physical abuse, and thus lost custody of the children.

Loeliger claims he gave this documentation to the show producers 6 months before the program aired, but he was ignored. In the documentary, the mother and daughter give poignant, even heartbreaking testimony. But is it true? Or is it a product of parental alienation syndrome? Among the press critics of Breaking the Silence was Glenn Sacks, whose column on the subject was headlined: "PBS Portrays Known Child Abuser as Hero."

As to the question of fairness and balance, several viewers suggested that the program directly violates the legal mandate of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to ensure strict adherence to objectivity in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature. I should note here that before a program is broadcast, CPB has no role in reviewing research, production or content. CPB ombudsmen are properly involved only post-broadcast.

My conclusion after viewing and reviewing the program and checking various web sites cited by critics is that there is no hint of balance in Breaking the Silence. The father's point of view is ignored as are new strategies for lessening the damage to children in custody battles. There is no mention of the collaborative law movement in which parents and lawyers come to terms without involving the court, nor of the new joint custody living arrangements.

The producers apparently do not subscribe to the idea that an argument can be made more convincing by giving the other side a fair presentation. To be sure, one comes away from viewing the program with the feeling that custody fights are a special hell, legally, emotionally, psychologically. But this broadcast is so slanted as to raise suspicions that either the family courts of America have gone crazy or there must be another side to the story.

The sponsorship of Breaking the Silence by the Mary Kay Ash Foundation also drew criticism on the CPB Ombudsman web site. A major part of the Foundation's mission is the prevention of violence against women, particularly abusive relationships. In July of 2003, the Foundation announced: "More than 650,000 Mary Kay Independent Beauty Consultants in the United States have joined forces to raise funds for the National Network to End Domestic Violence on behalf of the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation."

Each beauty consultant using Mary Kay products was tasked with raising money for the effort. A spokesperson for the Foundation said:

"The women of the Mary Kay independent sales force don't just sell beauty products, they touch women's lives every day."

One critic who reached CPB cited reports that the Mary Kay Ash Foundation is providing a stipend so that every battered women's organization in the country can put on private screenings of this film for their local judges and legislators. If so, PBS may find it has been the launching pad for a very partisan effort to drive public policy and law.

An organization called Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting (RADAR) sent a letter to Congressman Fred Upton, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, saying, in part:

"We are writing in regard to the PBS program Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories, a documentary about the treatment of abused children by Divorce Courts in America. The program falsely concludes that children are frequently awarded to abusive fathers by divorce courts.

"As such, the program directly violates the legal mandate of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to ensure 'strict adherence to objectivity in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.' Even though CPB did not create this program, CPB is nonetheless obligated by law to assure that all public broadcasting programs conform to journalistic standards of objectivity and balance."

RADAR's letter is co-signed by more than a dozen organizations representing families and fathers, and it concludes with a call for a Congressional investigation.

PBS says it has received around 4,000 letters, calls and e-mails about Breaking the Silence. The National Organization for Women issued an action alert calling for mail supporting the program. Glenn Sacks used his radio show to promote mailings objecting to the broadcast. Jan McNamara the director of corporate communication at PBS says the program is now under official review. That's good. Along with the motives of its sponsor (The Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation), Breaking the Silence needs to be reviewed for accuracy, fairness and balance.