Distrust over Motives Fuel Bitter Custody Disputes

By Erica Pinkston

Liz Richards is a fiery woman with a cause. She operates an organization called National Alliance for Family Court Justice out of her home in northern Virginia. She receives calls from women in numerous states who feel they have nowhere else to turn. They are women who have lost bitter custody disputes and become convinced that the judicial system is corrupt.

Her critics call her crazy and believe her to be vengeful due to her own custody battle with her ex-husband in the 80s. She claims her ex-husband sexually abused their daughter and then kidnapped her in 1989. Richards has hardly seen her daughter in ten years and devotes most, if not all, of her free time to making calls to members of the media, congressional staffers and other advocacy organizations trying to convince them to investigate her claims.

What are her claims? Richards believes a web of deceit and corruption exists within the court system that reaches all the way to lawyers, bar associations, and judges. But her main beef is with what she calls "fathers' rights groups," saying the leaders of these groups are behind much of the grief that mothers suffer in court.

She also makes another disturbing accusation: that some of these so-called fathers' rights groups associate with individuals who condone pedophilia. According to Richards, these groups use certain psychological theories authored by these individuals to support fathers, even in the face of substantial evidence showing sexual abuse by the father.

For example, according to a New Times article of March 4, 1999, a Los Angeles court took away mother Irene Jensen's custody of her eight-year-old daughter despite numerous testimonies by doctors and child protective services alleging physical and sexual abuse by the father. Jensen also registered complaints of spousal battery before her ex-husband filed for divorce. However, a court-appointed psychiatrist labeled Jensen as a "parental alienator." Because of that label, the court eventually gave Jensen's ex-husband full custody of their daughter and Jensen now has to pay a court monitor to visit her daughter once a month.

Richard Gardner, a clinical professor of child psychology at Columbia University, is often cited as an expert on parental alienation syndrome (or PAS), because it is his theory. He is criticized by some of his own colleagues, both for advocacy of this theory, and for his views on pedophilia. The American Psychological Association does not recognize the syndrome in its official manual because it doesn't meet the Association's high research standards. Stephanie Dallam wrote in the publication Treating Abuse Today that Gardner "proposes that many different types of human sexual behavior, including pedophilia, sexual sadism, necrophilia (sex with corpses), zoophilia (sex with animals), coprophilia (sex involving defecation) ... can be seen as having species survival value ... Gardner believes that all of these forms of sexual behavior create sexual excitement in males and females and thus help perpetuate the human race."

In his book, Sex Abuse Hysteria -Salem Witch Trials Revisited, Gardner wrote, "The Draconian punishments meted out to pedophilics go far beyond what I consider to be the gravity of the crime."

David Levy, president of Children's Rights Council (CRC), one of the groups often criticized by Richards, denies any approval of pedophilia, or even being a "fathers' rights" group. Said Levy, "We're against pedophilia; it's child abuse and we don't believe in it. We're not part of the fathers' rights movement ... we're for children's rights."

However, Levy acknowledged that Gardner has "sometimes spoken at [CRC's] conferences." Gardner is also listed as a resource on CRC's website. When asked if the CRC had a position on age-of-consent laws, Levy said, "We don't get into that at all." He argues that Gardner has been misquoted and wrongly accused of advocating pedophilia when asked about the implication of a children's rights group associating with individuals with favorable views on pedophilia.

Another controversial figure is Ralph Underwager, who founded the False Memory Syndrome and the Institute for Psychological Therapies. He and his wife, Hollida Wakefield, participated in an infamous interview with Paidika, a Dutch journal with an emphasis on pedophilia. Underwager is quoted as saying, "Certainly, [choosing pedophilia] is responsible ... Pedophiles can boldly and courageously affirm what they choose. ... Pedophiles need to become more positive and make the claim that pedophilia is an acceptable expression of God's will for love and unity among human beings."

Another fathers' rights group, the American Coalition of Fathers and Children, links to Underwager's Institute for Psychological Therapies site and offers articles written by him. Diana Thompson, executive director of ACFC, says her organization only uses Underwager's research to help parents who have been falsely accused of child abuse, adding, "it happens all the time." Thompson, like Levy, shuns the "fathers' rights" title, because she says ACFC is not just about fathers' rights. Rather, Thompson says, the organization advocates "shared parenting" so that children have both mothers and fathers in their lives, and noted that half of the organization is composed of women.

When asked about ACFC's relationship with Underwager, Thompson admitted she was "not a Ralph Underwager expert," but that she thought he had cleared his name with at least one state psychological board.

Underwager says his critics have taken certain quotes, like the one mentioned above, out of context. He stated that he was merely saying that pedophiles should "stand up and say what you believe," and that he was really advocating the right of free speech. He added that "sexual behavior is a matter of personal responsibility" and that he was "in no way saying that [pedophilia] was God's will." When asked about his views on age-of-consent laws, Underwager stated that they are "not a moral issue." Yet he added that any adult-child sex is destructive, because sex requires wholeness and a child is "not a full-fledged person." However, he says that the age of "wholeness" is based on experience and competency, and so is "different for any given individual."

Yet groups like the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and Family Research Council fight against the use of Gardner or Underwager's opinions in court or public policy. Victor Vaitch, director of the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse says his organization advises about 4,000 to 5,000 prosecutors a year who request research that defends against theories like parental alienation syndrome. Vaitch says that he believes there is nothing wrong with the research that people like Gardner and Underwager use, but that it "isn't applicable to the real world." He adds that other research shows a child of 10 or 11 is "no more suggestible than an adult" and that it would be "pretty rare for a parent to try to convince a child that they were abused."

A booklet from Family Research Council entitled Homosexual Activists Work to Lower the Age of Sexual Consent specifically mentions Gardner and Underwager and notes that "Doctors Underwager and Gardner are, however unwittingly, helping protect child molesters from prosecution…". Family Research Council policy analyst Rob Regier says he believes the work of Gardner and Underwager is part of a dangerous trend in the psychological community to normalize pedophilia.

Despite the reluctance of other organizations to speculate on Gardner or Underwager's agendas, Liz Richards remains convinced that they are part of a larger conspiracy against mothers. She will undoubtedly carry on her crusade, as will those who say they have been wrongly accused of child abuse, ensuring the debate over the merit of Gardner and Underwager's views will also continue to rage.

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