Custody Disputes Now Tougher for Battered Moms

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(WOMENSENEWS)–Going through a custody battle is like going through a war. One does not emerge unscathed. Yes, one may learn important lessons, but one may also be left broken and incapable of trusting others, including our so-called justice system, ever again.

Custody battles can take a very long time. They range from only several years to more than 15 or 20. They may have profound legal, economic, social, psychological and even medical consequences for years afterward, perhaps forever.

What’s changed since I first started researching and writing about custody battles?

Documented domestic violence does get factored in somewhat more than before. Where real assets exist, judges have the power to award more of them to mothers and children. Fewer mothers and fathers automatically lose custody or visitation because they are gay or because they have high-powered careers.

However, certain injustices (crimes, really) that I first began tracking in the late 1970s have now gotten much worse. For example, battered women are losing custody to their batterers in record numbers. Children are being successfully brainwashed by fathers, but many mothers are being falsely accused of brainwashing. Worse: Children with mandated reporters–physicians, nurses or teachers–who report to them that they have been sexually abused by their fathers are usually given to those very fathers. The mothers of these children are almost always viewed as having "coached" or "alienated" the children and, on this basis alone, are seen as "unfit" mothers.

‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’

I understand that this sounds unbelievable. But it is still true. The mothers of raped children, who are also described as "protective" mothers, are seen as guilty of "parental alienation syndrome." The fact that this concept, first pioneered by Dr. Richard Gardner and widely endorsed by fathers’ rights groups, has been dismissed as junk science does not seem to matter. Most guardians ad litem, parenting counselors, mediators, lawyers, mental health professionals and judges still act as if this syndrome were real and mainly find mothers, not fathers, guilty in this regard. In 2010 the American Psychiatric Association was still fighting to include a new disorder in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders": the parental alienation disorder, to replace the debunked parental alienation syndrome.

In 2009 and 2010 more than 50 mothers from 21 U.S. states and a number of foreign countries all shared their stories with me. Their cases took place between the late 1980s and 2010. Some cases are still ongoing.

In some instances, I spoke with the mothers in person or at length on the phone. Some mothers filled out questionnaires, but many also sent additional narratives and documentation. Some mothers sent me eloquent, beautifully written, full-length memoirs. Some wrote pithy but equally heartbreaking accounts of their marriages and custody battles.

With a few exceptions, most of my 2010 mother-interviewees said that the system was "corrupt" and that lawyers and judges don’t care about "justice," are "very biased," or can be "bought and sold."

Feeling Actively ‘Disliked’

These mothers said that social workers, mental health professionals, guardians ad litem and parent coordinators–especially if they were women–actively "disliked" and were "cruel and hostile" to them as women. (Perhaps they expected women to be more compassionate toward other women. In this, they were sadly mistaken.)

Also, many mothers found that female professionals were often completely taken in by charming, sociopathic men ("parasites," "smother-fathers"), dangerously violent men, and men who sexually abused their children.

Perhaps the mothers who sent me their stories were married to uniquely terrible men who used the court system to make their lives a living hell; perhaps mothers who did not write to me had the good fortune to have been married to and divorced from far nicer men.

Good fathers definitely exist. Some fathers move heaven and earth to rescue their children from a genuinely mentally ill mother but do not try to alienate the children from her. If the mother has been the primary caretaker, some fathers give up custody, pay a decent amount of child support (and continue to do so) and work out a relationship with their children based on what’s good for both the children and their mother.

These men exist. They do not launch custody battles from hell.

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Dr. Phyllis Chesler is emerita professor of psychology and women’s studies and the author of 15 books, including "Women and Madness" and "Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman." She is a cofounder of the Association for Women in Psychology and the National Women’s Health Network. She can be reached through her Web site:

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Phyllis Chesler’s Web site:

Buy the book:
Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody

5 thoughts on “Custody Disputes Now Tougher for Battered Moms

  1. I’ve experienced this. Fortunately I still have custody of my daughter, but I am continuing to fight. Right now we have in home therapy at both places.
    But the social workers have bent backwards to find me guilty of coaching, more so than to find evidence of my child’s claims of abuse. The evaluating psychologist didn’t do anything to protect, just went along with the social worker. When I told them I was abused, they ignored me, tried to put me in the same room, and were condescending to me about my needs for safety. I had to fight for my basic rights every step of the way with them. They traumatized and victimized me further, but I persisted. They want you to back down. They want to be right, and they perceive us as an easy target. They don’t like strong women who have opinions.
    This has consumed my and my husband’s (new husband, not abuser) life and marriage for the past 2 years. We’ve only been married 2 years. I want to have a life again.

  2. Phyllis has this correctly
    “Children are being successfully brainwashed by fathers”.
    That is a fundamental component of parental alienation, and is why the behaviours are so profoundly damaging to the child. In any particular situation, these kinds of behaviours are possible from a dad a mom, or both. The alienating parent doesn’t necessarily want to damage or destroy the other parent/ child bond, and may not fully understand the results of their own behaviour. The behaviours, nevertheless, are very damaging.

    When the results of these behaviours are successful, the child suffers from delusions of reality, suffer from oppositional defiant disorder, becoming nasty, uncharacteristically negative or even outright hostile, they can damage property, runaway from home, become aggressive or even violent or suicidal.

    There is a great likely hood of the child suffering from depression/anxiety, become addicted to drugs alcohol or sex, and become school avoidant.

    These symptoms are not exclusive to parental alienation, but when other possibilities for the cause do not fully explain these effects, parental alienation can.

    Women are targets of alienating parents, no less than men.

    To try and discredit any understanding of parental alienation does the child victim no benefit.

    • What seems sad though, is that often the woman is accused of causing the behaviors by alienating. In my case, the father is alienating and abusing. She is oppositional, defiant, behavioral problems, reality orientation problems, dissociation, hostile and depressed/anxious. I just want her to be happy and healthy. Courts definitely have a bias, at least in my area, and I dare suggest elsewhere too.

  3. Domestic violence is a huge issue and should not be ignored. However, we can’t validiate one legitimate issue by ignoring the existence of another.

    Parental alienation is real and affects countless children, parents and extended family members every year. And your readers might be interested to know that both mothers and fathers and both the alienating parent and targeted parent in equal numbers.

    Do some parents cry parental alienation when none exists as a custody strategy? Of course they do. Do other parents claim abuse when none exists to alienate a child from a loving parent? You betcha. The answer isn’t to ignore the existence of parental alienation to protect those who are legitimate victims of domestic violence. No, the answer is to educate legal and mental health professionals about alienation so they can differentiate between false allegations of abuse and real parental alienation and vice versa. Only then will we be able to protect our families from all kinds of abuse.


    mike jeffries
    Author, A Family’s Heartbreak: A Parent’s Introduction to Parental Alienation

    • Mike, Enough with the alienation nonsense. PAS was originally made up as a legal defense of child molesters. The APRI identified used of “alienation” strategies as the means to endanger abused children, while threatening the integrity of our entire criminal justice system. In court, PAS is nothing more than a “buzz” word for, “let’s suppress evidence and shift blame to mom so we can take advantage of all kinds of program funding, while we ‘screw the biatch’ in the process”. Do people lie, cheat, make false allegations, or “alienate” children. Sure. But the reality is that the vast majority of alienating parents are abusive FATHERS, who get improper custodial rights to the detriment of both the mothers and the children involved. In family court “alienation” has nothing to do with what is really happening for the children. In fact, it’s used pretty exclusively in the real estate sense, i.e., transfer of property (children) from one owner (the mother) to another (the father), willingly, or not. (In DV and child abuses cases, the children are NOT willing to go to the abuser. But that’s why Gardner called for using “threats” through facilities like the Rachel Foundation, where children are denied food and threatened that they’ll never see their mothers again unless they shut up and stop complaining.)

      Check this out…from the guy who recommended that molest victims’ mothers use vibrators, and who then killed himself with a butcher knife

      The following interchange took Place in the context of a discussion I had with Sally, a 6-year-old PAS child who refused to visit with her father for a whole weekend (as ordered by the court) but agreed to see him for ,hour or two. This decision, of course, represented a compromise between her two parents’ requests of her.

      Gardner: What would you do if the judge said that if you don’t see your father for a full weekend, he’ll stop your mother’s money for that week?

      Sally: I wouldn’t see him. I’d get a job and give her all the money I have.

      Gardner: Suppose he said that if you don’t see him, he’ll stop your mother’s money forever. She’d have no money. What would you do?

      Sally: All of us (Sally and her two brothers) would get jobs.

      Gardner: Suppose the judge said that if you don’t see your father for a full weekend, he’ll put your mother in jail for that weekend?

      Sally: My mother said she’d go to jail for me if I was that uncomfortable with him and didn’t want to go.

      Gardner: Suppose the judge said, “I’ll keep her in jail unless you go and I’ll keep her in jail until you go.”

      Sally: I guess I’d go!