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Is World War Needed to Protect Our Children?

by Phyllis Chesler

Every time a news story breaks about a woman imprisoned as a sex slave (for example the Cleveland Three) people are, appropriately, shocked and horrified.

What is even more shocking is the fact that such crimes are committed every single day in every country on earth.  Children and adult women are routinely sold, tricked or kidnapped in epidemic numbers and trafficked into sex slavery for profit. Rarely do such pimps and profiteers bother to keep one girl (or boy) only for themselves.

Civilian pedophiles do that. We think of pedophiles as depraved older men or, increasingly, as men of the cloth, whose prey is an under-age stranger. Once caught, they are registered as sex offenders and law enforcement can, potentially, keep eyes on them.

But what if the pedophiles are fathers and their captive prey are their own children? How will the police ever learn about this? There is no system that monitors children in their own homes. When mothers try to do so, they often lose custody of their children. Pedophiles, including a child’s own father, are often charming, docile, and seem “normal.”

Given that it is almost impossible to “police” a man’s home (which is still his castle), mothers are on the front line in terms of protecting children. There is no one else. But when mothers try to protect their children from physical or sexual abuse they often lose custody of them.

This past weekend I delivered a keynote speech at the tenth annual Battered Mothers Custody Conference. This conference was founded by Dr. Maureen (“Mo”) Hannah and has functioned as a life line forbattered and “protective” mothers. The program included keynote speeches by Terry O’Neill, NOW’s national President and Toby Kleinman, prominent family law attorney and champion for women’s rights. More than 15 sessions took place, led by the most dedicated and fearless lawyers, mental health professionals, and mothers. More than 150 people attended this conference. Forty people delivered lectures; 10 of them were custodially challenged mothers.

Some mothers lost custody of their children to their batterers.  Many battered mothers lost their children when they alleged that their violent husbands had also been sexually abusing their child. Often such mothers are seen as “crazy,” and as “alienating” the child from their perfectly nice father. I first broke this scandal 27 years ago when I published my book Mothers on Trial. The Battle for Children and Custody. There have been some improvements. Documented domestic violence is often factored in a bit more often; where there are assets, judges may award mothers a greater percentage of them; gay parents and mothers with demanding careers do not lose custody as they once did for these reasons.

However, matters have worsened in many areas—so much so, that I added eight chapters to the 25th anniversary edition of this book. Two chapters are titled “Court-Enabled Incest in the 1980s and 1990s,” and “Court-Enabled Incest in the Twenty-First Century.”

The court system does not want to believe that a well-spoken, charismatic man could really be a savage wife-beater or child abuser. It is easier to believe that his traumatized, sleepless, frightened and rapidly impoverished wife is lying, exaggerating or imagining things. I have interviewed many such mothers, and many more were present at this extraordinary conference which was held in Washington DC at the George Washington University Law School.

The police do not rescue these children. In fact, the courts often award custody to their abusers and severely limit the “crazy’ mothers’ visitation.  When such mothers finally run away to save their children, they are routinely captured, imprisoned and lose access to their children for a very long time.

One such mother, Holly Collins, was beaten badly for a very long time in the American state of Minnesota. Her children were beaten, too. No one came to their rescue. On the contrary. Eventually, the father, who terrified his children, gained custody of them. The court system nearly destroyed this mother and her children. And so, in 1994, Holly fled the country. She carried her entire legal file with her in her suitcases. In 1996, after an extensive legal review and appeal, Holland granted this American mother political asylum (!) on the grounds that America had not protected her or her children and did not seem likely to ever do so. Garland Waller directed a riveting documentary about Holly, titled  No Way Out But One. The film was shown to the conference. According to Dr. Hannah, their reaction was “highly positive.”

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Battered Mothers Custody Conference and The National Organization of Men Against Sexism presented an award to the “People and Government of the Netherlands and to the extraordinary lawyer who fought for Holly and her children, Els Lucas.

The BMCC mothers asked me amazing questions. “Do we need to launch another world war to keep the children safe in America?” “Where is our Abraham Lincoln on this subject?” “What country should we live in if not here?” The mothers, including a group calling itself the “Mothers of Lost Children” demonstrated outside the White House.

According to the testimonies of these mothers, their children either witnessed their mothers being beaten on a daily basis and/or were also beaten; some children were also sexually abused. These were households of terror, ruled over by a legal husband and father, not by a stranger. Yes, I know, some mothers falsely allege domestic violence; most do not, nor do most mothers allege incest unless a teacher, pediatrician, social worker or other mandated reporter does so first. And why? Because 21st century mothers have all been advised by their lawyers that they risk losing custody if they make such an allegation. Even so, these mothers still lost custody of the children they were trying to protect.

Jennifer Collins, Holly’s daughter, has created a website for children who, like her, are living “underground.” Both Jennifer, who is working as a para-legal, and Holly, led a workshop at the conference.

The work I began in 1976, when I testified in my first custody case for a mother and when I worked with “protective” mothers in the 1980s,continues. Now, there is a growing movement underway. I salute all those who are part of it.

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Phyllis Chesler is Professor Emerita of Psychology and the author of fourteen books, including Women and Madness, Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, Mothers on Trial. The Battle for Children and Custody, and The New Anti-Semitism. She has published pioneering studies on honor killing and submitted affidavits for women in flight from being honor killed and who are in search of political asylum. Her new book, An American Bride in Kabul (Palgrave Macmillan) will be out in fall 2013. She may be reached at


Rhonda Case posted: 2013-05-17 14:51:49

It was my great privilege to be present at the BMCC X at George Washington University School of Law and to hear Dr. Chesler's presentation via skype. What an honor to hear this pioneer and champion of protective mothers. We are refugees from the "Dirty Wars" which take place every day in our family law courts. We limp off the unseen battlefield, impoverished and traumatized having seen our children's spirits shattered and bodies violated; we are collateral damage. Thank you, Dr. Chesler, for continuing to speak truth to power on our behalf.

Rosalyn Chatt posted: 2013-05-20 13:04:37

Your work and writing are always exemplary and appreciated, especially on a tragic topic like this. Balanced, rational, incisive. There has to be a better way to protect people from the charming manipulators who cause such horror. It starts with having respect for women.

Norman Simms posted: 2013-05-20 13:04:43

What Phyllis Chesler reports here is so outrageous that there are hardly words to express the disgust, frustration and rage any civilized person must feel, not just at the beaters and abusers at home, but at the judiciary, the police and the politicians who refuse to act. Yes, I think perhaps a world war is needed--if it is not already underway.

Coral Anika Theill posted: 2013-05-20 13:04:52

Thank you, Phyllis Chesler, for your excellent article. I appreciated hearing your presentation at the 10th Annual Battered Mothers, Abused Children and Child Custody Conference in Washington D.C. May 10-11th. The conference offers hope to many of us who have lost custody and/or visitation privileges with our children in America's judicial system. Forcibly taking a mother's children, and then controlling her emotionally by withholding contact must be publicly recognized as one of the greatest forms of 'mis-use' of the American justice system and one of the greatest hidden vehicles for wide-spread socially approved physical and emotional abuse and control. Nothing justifies the minimization or removal of a fit and loving parent from a child's life. NOTHING. Keeping the faith and hope for future changes is often all that "non-custodial mothers" have. It is said that Lady Justice is blind, but she should not be mocked.

Mo Hannah posted: 2013-05-20 13:05:06

Dr. Chesler was one of many big thinkers within the protective mothers movement who participated in this year's Battered Mothers Custody Conference. This is the tenth time protective mothers and their allies, along with legal experts, journalists, activists, scholars, and and many others who, like Phyllis, gave generously of their time and resources to enlighten the public, support protective mothers and their children, and promote true change across the ugly landscape of America's (and the rest of the world's) family courts. The BMCC X turned into an historic event, due to the conviction and passion of the nearly 200 people who attended these events. We are making headway. We will persevere. Thank you, Phyllis, for your many contributions.

Tammy Risaliti posted: 2013-05-20 13:05:14

This is a wonderful article about a subject that most people simply want to ignore. The courts protect the abusers and not the rights of the children. Good mothers tend to get labeled as "emotional" even when there is much evidence of abuse therefore distracting from the abuse, but if we don't report it we are then labeled as being "negligent". And if we move to protect our children when the courts won't they consider that WORSE than abuse and the abusive father gets the children. This is becoming an epidemic of absurd proportions and yes, I believe World War is needed to protect our children.

Maxine Browne posted: 2013-05-20 13:05:22

I attended the Battered Mothers Custody Conference. I have met so many women -- far too many women -- with this kind of story. The stories are slightly different and the names change. I have wondered why judges all over the country would refuse to look at evidence, hear witnesses, or believe medical reports in these cases. We must stand with these mothers to protect children.

Kathy Jones posted: 2013-05-24 13:23:13

These injustices will continue as long as there is no national document memorializing the personhood of women and children with rights "to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and until our legal system is set up to recognize that all PERSONAL SAFETY is more important than PROPERTY RIGHTS. Women and children are still chattel in the US. What are we doing to change this?

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