THE LIZ LIBRARY: family law child custody

by Talia Carner


After two years on the run to save her son from a father she believed was abusing him, Jennifer Siefke was arrested in Montana following a tip to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Web site.

After her arrest, Siefke was quoted by Women's Enews as saying: "I just wanted my son to have as many years as possible so that he could have a voice." The older he became, she believed, the better he would be able to tell authorities what he experienced.

My heart goes out to Jennifer Siefke and to every one of the 50,000 mothers reportedly on the run in the United States each year. Often penniless, fleeing with their children and nothing more than the clothes on their backs, they live in cars, motels and public parks. They are afraid to use credit cards or their Social Security number for fear of being identified, and therefore they cannot work and earn decent wages. They subsist instead on handouts from strangers. They miss all they have left behind: their towns, families, friends, jobs, homes -- and their dignity. I light a candle for each of them, hoping they will never be found and that their children will not be "saved."

When I was 7 years old, my father kidnapped me and kept me hidden for two years. (He did not molest me, but his occasional beatings were particularly harsh.) He deposited me with a foster family and visited every week or two. He neither wanted me nor loved me, but I was an excellent pawn in his divorce battle over money and property matters. When my mother found me in school a year after my disappearance, my father showed up within an hour after being alerted by the principal's phone call. I was whisked away to another family.

The trauma of being snatched away from my mother never left me. It marked my identity well into adulthood. Yet when writing my novel Puppet Child, I found myself on the side of the mother kidnapping her child. Having become enmeshed in the turbulent emotional struggles of my protagonist, I came to believe that the kidnapping of a child by the "right" parent is fully justified. Had my mother kidnapped me, I would have gladly spent two years protected from the violent man whom I had come to despise and fear. In fact, after my mother gained custody of me, my father had little interest in seeing me, even though he worked less than 15 minutes away from where my mother and I lived with my loving and devoted stepfather.

Paradoxically, abusive fathers are often abetted by family courts in their zeal to control and punish their former spouses and continue abusing their children. Indeed, one of the most prestigious legal organizations in the U.S. has tacitly acknowledged the failure of family courts to provide protection from family violence. The American Law Institute recently released its new guidelines on custody law, which is designed to lay out the framework for the courts to assist parents seeking divorces from violent or sexually abusive partners.

These new guidelines will urge courts to screen for child abuse -- as well as domestic violence -- and deny custody or even visitation unless the abuser demonstrates that visitation can be handled in a way that protects the safety of all concerned.

This is a good first step, but only that. In the course of researching my novel about a mother's attempts to protect her child from a sexually abusive father, I came across an absurd and painful phenomenon: When a mother makes allegations of sexual abuse, she may lose credibility and hence custody, and the child may be transferred to the custody of his or her father.

COURAGEOUS KIDS fighting back after being placed with abusersIn fact, many custody trials involving sexual allegations are the result of a mother discovering the molestation of her child. As the mother discovers the abuse, she often initiates a divorce. In response, the father puts up a fight for the control his spouse wishes to deny him. The courtroom is one arena where he can deal a final blow to the family he abused by forcing the mother and children apart.

And while the changes proposed by the law institute may help a bit, many believe that judges are failing to implement existing laws. In his 2002 book, Scared To Leave, Afraid To Stay: Paths From Family Violence To Safety, New York attorney Barry Goldstein describes 10 such cases, typical of his 20 years in practice. Judges who suppress evidence of abuse today will ignore the American Law Institute's new guidelines tomorrow.

And, rather than seek justice for each child in legal cases mired with complexities, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children works with the FBI and local law enforcement agencies to punish desperate mothers who flee, even those believing that their children have been legally handed to pedophiles.

Siefke, who was pictured on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Web site as a fugitive, was one such mother.

The indiscriminate "search and rescue" for children whose only protectors are distraught, disenfranchised, dispirited and impoverished women is aided by this and other well-meaning but often misguided organizations convinced that a fallible family court decision supercedes women and children's rights to live free from family violence.

Run, mommy, run.

        Talia Carner, author of Puppet ChildTalia Carner is an advocate for child victims of the legal system and the author of the just-released novel about family court, Puppet Child.

        Currently a full-time writer, she is the former publisher of Savvy Woman magazine, as well as a mother, stepmother, and founder of the Business Women Marketing Corporation.

        Copyright 2003 Talia Carner


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