Docudrama, directed and narrated by Oscar-winning director Lee Grant and part of HBO’s America Undercover series, is a chilling look at the cases of four mothers who lost custody of their children to fathers accused of child abuse.
Program focuses on family court system in Harris County, Texas, peeling away the allegedly gross miscarriages of justice perpetrated by two family court judges. However, the extreme prejudice displayed by these jurists, the financial conflict of interest with attorneys, psychotherapists and others in the family court system, and the almost pathological indifference to the “best interests of the child” suggests the underlying rot of the family justice system throughout the nation.
When Sandy Eber, a schoolteacher, learns from her five-year old son that he has been molested by his father and seeks to limit his visitation, she is thrown in jail and prevented from seeing her son for 3 1/2 years. The same judge removed another mother’s children from her custody and gave them to their father , who the children said physically abused them.
In another case, a mother discovered that her ex-husband was sexually abusing her young son. Despite testimony incriminating the father, the family court judge gave sole custody to the father and denied visitation to the mother. Realizing that the abuse of her child was continuing, the woman bought a gun and killed her husband in a gunfight in which she was wounded. She is now serving a life sentence. In another widely-publicized case, a woman lost her daughter to her ex-husband, even though the man was a convicted rapist.
While there is always the underlying doubt in these cases about who is telling the truth, there is no doubt about the unfair, arbitrary treatment these women suffered at the hands of the family court system. As the program points out, judges, attorneys, family therapists, police and social workers are part of a intertwined network of referrals and court appointments which are rife with conflict of interest and primed for abuse. Judicial prejudice, systematic denial and corruption, coupled with an epidemic of physical and sexual abuse, overwhelm the rarely defended and poorly defined “best interests of the child.”
While lawyers, judges and legal scholars have long argued that the law holds little sway over the inner sanctum of the family, the docudrama vividly demonstrates how this argument has led to a kind of legalized child abuse, in which the family court system has abdicated its responsibilities to children in the face of more powerful, persuasive and “grown-up” forces. As this simply directed and photographed yet starkly moving documentary suggests, it is time for the family courts to reassert their role as protectors of children in the face of the epidemic physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children that is only now coming out of the shadows.