Much is being written about Dylan Farrow’s open letter in Saturday’s New York Times about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, thanks to her powerful adoptive father, filmmaker and current Oscar nominee Woody Allen.
What isn’t being discussed by the various talking heads on every major network are the hard and cold facts about child sexual abuse, particularly when this life-altering crime is handled by family courts during a divorce or custody dispute.
Dylan wrote that, “There were experts willing to attack my credibility. There were doctors willing to gaslight an abused child… I didn’t know that he would accuse my mother of planting the abuse in my head and call her a liar for defending me. I didn’t know that I would be made to recount my story over and over again, to doctor after doctor, pushed to see if I’d admit I was lying as part of a legal battle I couldn’t possibly understand.”
Through my and my daughter’s own four agonizing years in family court, I saw the flaws of this impenetrable court system up close and personal. While my case did not involve sexual abuse, it was no less disturbing. While I do not wish to discuss the specifics of my case at this time, I can testify to the anguish this system puts on the children involved in an effort to protect the parent in question.
While I know a thing or two about the terrible state of this country’s family courts, and I’ve testified in Sacramento about the need for judicial oversight and system reform aimed at keeping children safer during custody disputes, I wasn’t as familiar with the facts about how child sexual abuse survivors are faring in the nation’s family courts.
Since so many pundits are basing their opinions on “victim blaming,” “mother blaming,” or a misunderstanding of child sexual abuse and the courts’ treatment of it, and since Dylan’s open letter speaks directly to the legal system’s mishandling of her childhood trauma, I want to share with you some important facts that expose just how broken the family court system is, particularly for children who have suffered sexual abuse by a parent or authority figure.
The Center for Judicial Excellence, which tracks horrific cases like Dylan’s, and advocates for widespread system reform of the nation’s family courts, shared the following startling facts with me, which were compiled by their colleagues at Child Abuse Solutions.
Every discussion about whether Dylan is telling the truth needs to be grounded in facts.
- 1) Children hardly ever fabricate allegations of sexual abuse. Studies analyzing maliciously fabricated allegations of child sexual abuse have found that children bring only 0% to 2% of such allegations. There is no reputable research to support the notion that children can be brainwashed to believe they have been sexually abused when they have not.
- 2) Maliciously fabricated allegations of child sexual abuse are exceedingly rare. Most studies find that only 1% to 6% of all child sexual abuse allegations in custody and visitation disputes are maliciously fabricated. The remaining 94% to 99% of such allegations are either true or were brought in good faith, based upon a reasonable suspicion. Studies find that family law judges consider allegations of child physical and sexual abuse to be maliciously fabricated far more often than is supported by the research.
- 3) Research has established that while mothers accuse fathers of child sexual abuse in 48% of cases involving such allegations, their allegations are found to be maliciously fabricated only 1.3% of the time.
- 4) Medical evidence is very rare in cases involving child sexual abuse. Even in legally confirmed cases of vaginal penetration, the rate of abnormal medical findings is only 5.5%. The rate of abnormal medical findings in legally confirmed cases of anal penetration is only 1%.Genital tissue is very elastic and heals rapidly. Unless the child is examined by a medico-legal sexual assault specialist within 48 hours of the rape, any genital tears are likely to have healed and DNA or semen will have disappeared.
- 5) The single most important indicator of child sexual abuse is disclosure by the child to a trusted adult. Because family courts use a civil standard of proof (a preponderance of the evidence, or just over a 50% likelihood) rather than the higher criminal standard of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt), substantially less evidence is required in family court to meet the burden of proving that a child needs protection from sexual abuse. NOTE– This is why the family court judge was able to deny Mr. Allen visitation with Dylan despite the fact that he was never criminally charged.
- 6) Children who disclose sexual abuse by a parent in the context of a custody dispute are frequently not protected from further abuse. Research shows that:
· Only 10% of children alleging incest are adequately protected from their identified perpetrators by family courts through long-term supervised visitation orders or no-contact orders.
· The remaining 90% of children disclosing abuse receive no protection, with 70% continuing in shared custody and visitation arrangements without any supervision, and 20% being placed in the custody of the parent they accused of the sexual abuse, and losing unsupervised or all contact with the parent who sought to protect them.
Given this last fact, what is remarkable about Dylan Farrow’s experience is that the family court in her case actually protected her from ongoing contact with her alleged abuser. She was part of the only 10% of child sex abuse victims who are protected from their abusers during and after a divorce and/or custody fight.
In her case, the Judge apparently found her claim of abuse “more probable than not” despite the Yale psychologists’ reports submitted by Woody Allen’s attorneys. Much is made by Woody Allen’s camp that a group of Yale psychologists found that the abuse did not happen and was either Dylan’s fantasy or that the abuse was “implanted” by Mia Farrow. These Yale psychologists, however, were notably psychologists that Woody Allen treated with, and paid. Additionally, they never interviewed the corroborating witnesses and they destroyed their notes, which in these cases are never done. It is not surprising that the judge noted that he had reservations about the reliability of the Yale report.
While it is true that Woody Allen was not charged criminally, the prosecutor explained that while he had probable cause to charge Woody Allen, he was not doing so because of his and Mia Farrow’s concern for the fragility of Dylan and what going through a criminal action would mean to her. So, yes, Woody Allen has never been found guilty under the criminal code for child sexual abuse. But the judge in the family court action effectively made the determination that it was more probable than not that the abuse occurred and Woody Allen received no visitation. This finding was upheld by an appellate court that affirmed the judge’s order on this point.
The system fails many other children which is why The Center for Judicial Excellence and other child-focused organizations are urging people concerned about the dangers of family courts for child sex abuse victims to sign their Change.org petition demanding Congressional Oversight Hearings on the Failure of Family &Divorce Courts. Their Kids of Divorce Speak Out campaign also shares videos of young survivors like Dylan who are speaking out about the crisis in the nation’s family courts that are stealing their childhoods and harming so many child abuse survivors.
We should all work to ensure that survivors like Dylan Farrow are supported when they speak out about their abuse. We should investigate the facts, all of them, before forming conclusions.
I would encourage people to not think of Woody Allen as a famous artist, but as a man. No more or less special than anyone else. Whether art can be separated from the individual is a personal consideration and a decision everyone is entitled to make on their own.
However, if you love Woody Allen movies, do not use your appreciation of Woody Allen’s art as a basis to challenge Dylan Farrow’s credibility. Although for some the issue of whether the art can be separated from the man is open to debate, for me it cannot. I can, however, state with absolute impunity that Dylan Farrow’s story and her credibility is completely unrelated to how good a filmmaker Woody Allen is.
I would also urge everyone to be wary of claims of bitter or vindictive mothers. Any mother’s attorney will put the fear of God in a mother before abuse is ever mentioned to a Court because of the high risk that the Court will end up removing the children from her and giving them to the abuser. You speak and risk removal, or you remain scared and silent. As unthinkable as this is, it happens with great regularity. Visit The Center For Judicial Excellence webpage and you will see just how often.
I have great appreciation for Dylan. Her courage to speak out in such a public way has instigated a long needed dialogue about these “private family matters” that are leaving our children unprotected and silenced by a system that must instead give them a voice and actually listen to them.
Nancy Lee Grahn