In 1996, Holly Collins and her children became the first Americans to be granted asylum by the government of the Netherlands due to domestic violence. She fled the United States after losing custody of her children in Family Court to her ex-husband, who abused Holly and their two young children. Her remarkable story was featured in the 87- minute documentary “No Way Out But One,” by the Boston- based journalist/filmmaking team of Garland Waller and Barry Nolan. The film will be shown on the Documentary Channel at the end of October, which is national Domestic Violence Awareness month.
Filmmaker Garland Waller spoke with The Crime Report's Managing Editor Cara Tabachnick about Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), bringing attention to abuse in contested custody cases, and the “Alice in Wonderland” state of the U.S. Family Court System.
The Crime Report: Why did you decide to make this film?
Garland Waller: There is little justice in American family court. The issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse that take place inside the courtroom get little to no recognition. It is hard to get enough traction with these issues. (We hoped) to get some acknowledgement or recognition in a bigger way.
Holly Collins had tons of creditable medical evidence and legal documents to support what she said. And her children were old enough, and had faith enough, to testify or to speak to us on camera about their experience. This took it out of the space of 'he said, she said' that normally happens when people think of a custody or divorce case.
TCR: Is the Holly Collins case illustrative of the issues that women are facing in family court?
GW: Absolutely. Her course of action is something that could not happen today. You can't do that today, after 9/11. She took the kids and ran, and found safety in another country in 1994 and she was utility granted asylum in 1996. This case shows that the system doesn't work. You can have evidence of domestic violence; you can have evidence of child abuse; and the court will ignore it, downplay it, make you think you're crazy. We see this over and over again today in Family Court.
TCR: Explain the issues facing abused women and children in family court.
GW: We know from research and statistics that a batterer is more likely than a non- batterer to get custody in family court today. That should be most shocking to people. What most people don't understand is that most divorces and custody cases never end up in a family court. Even if the couple hates each other, they figure out what to for the (kids' best interests). (But) when domestic violence is involved, everything changes. It's Alice in Wonderland. Family courts are kingdoms; they are not like civil courts or criminal courts, and t judges could do anything they want.
When a battered person goes to court, usually she doesn't look good. She's nervous, she's shaky, she's scared, and maybe she's been living in a shelter. She is certainly stressed when she goes to court and says 'my husband beat me, my husband beats the children' or 'my husband is sexually abusing the children.' One would think the court would help. But what usually happens is the woman is either not believed, or the court believes she is exaggerating.
The batterers are usually more charming. The whole family court system is really set up to challenge people who bring up sexual abuse and physical abuse of children. It is not a place where protected parents can go to court and expect support.
TCR: Fathers' rights weren't mentioned in the movie. Why not? Aren't they important?
GW: We are just talking about fathers that by and large show up in family court. Men who beat their wives or children and sexually abuse their children should not have access to them. Period. If you are somebody who hurt your family, you should not have access to those people. Fathers' rights groups hate this documentary. They say Holly Collins is not credible. They have been very aggressive and hostile.
I produced this documentary with my husband Barry Nolan, who is an extraordinary journalist. He combed through all the medical and legal documents, and we did not say anything in the documentary that we could not prove. We show whatever documents we are talking about. But the fathers' rights groups really are very angry at how we say a batterer gets custody. Personally I don't understand this. I would put a question to the fathers' right' groups: Do you think fathers who beat their children should have custody of them? I think that the answer should be no.
TCR: So why do you think there have been so many mistakes and no changes in family court?
GW: One reason is that people who are involved in family courts make a lot of money, whether it's the lawyers of the husband or the wife. The other thing is, these people see each other in court again and again. A lot of judges do want to make change, (but) they don't want to cause a lot of trouble. Another key element is very long (history of) gender bias in the family court. I think we see this in a lot of areas, but especially in family courts.
TCR: In September the American Psychiatric Association (APA) decided not to add Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) to its list of disorders. Why is that important? Is that going to change anything for family court?
GW: I think it is going to change a lot, but it is going to take a long time to trickle down the system. This (PAS) syndrome has been used for so long to convince judges in courts that when a mother brings up sexual abuse or physical abuse of her children she is only doing it to badmouth the father, and to get custody. The APA has done the absolute right thing, which took an enormous amount of courage. But we still have quite a battle ahead to make sure these changes are reflected in the family court system.
TCR: Most women wouldn't choose Holly Collins path—and it wouldn't be practical today. How should other mothers deal with family court?
GW: The first thing that you have to do is get a good lawyer that understands how the court system really works. You have to have money to get these lawyers. You can't lose your mind. The system has to change. , There a lot of child advocates and a lot of custody people and a lot of domestic violence people—and none of them talk to each other. So very few people are making the leaps and connections to make change, and that's what needs to happen. They are really dropping the ball. But the main thing is that a lot of people need to be aware of what is going on the family courts. If there is any evidence of child abuse, sexual abuse or domestic violence, it must be reconsidered in any valuation. It cannot be dismissed. It cannot be ignored. It has to be a part of the record. If children want to speak they need to speak. They want to tell the truth and they want to tell what happen, but they are not allowed to. They should be allowed to. To put the burden on the women to do something different is not the answer. They are only trying to protect their children from abuse. It's the system that has to change.
TCR: What do you hope the film can accomplish?
The film is going to be shown on the Documentary Channel October 29 at 8:00pm-11:00pm ET. Then the movie will be shown mainly on college campuses, because this is where the young people are. This is the generation where we have to go to. My hope there is a new awareness about what happens in family courts, and we can make people understand that battered women and abused children have their hands tied.
Cara Tabachnick is Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.