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Published December 1, 2008 by BU Today

Battered Mothers Custody Conference Interviews

by Vicki Waltz

Ten years ago, while visiting her hometown in Virginia, Garland Waller viewed a disturbing video: a three-year-old child, crying and pleading with her mother not to send her to her father’s house. Waller, an assistant professor of film and television in BU’s College of Communication, learned that the girl’s parents were divorced and her father was given partial custody in family court, despite evidence that he had abused her. By the time Waller saw the tape, the girl’s mother had been trying to get the decision reversed for seven years.

“I learned a dirty secret that day,” Waller (COM’80) says. “Every day, in every state, battered mothers lose custody of their children when they file for divorce.”

In fact, according to statistics reported by the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, in a study of more than 300 custody cases involving allegations of sexual abuse, 70 percent resulted in unsupervised visitation or shared custody with the alleged sexual abuser. And in 20 percent of cases, the nonviolent parent lost custody completely. “Every year, 58,000 children are put back into the hands of sexual abusers,” Waller says. “They might not have full custody, but they do have unsupervised custody.”

The rage Waller felt over the home video led her on an 11-year quest to uncover the hypocrisy of the family court system. Her award-winning independently produced 2001 documentary Small Justice: Little Justice in America’s Family Courts follows a paralegal and a Virginia attorney as they represent three mothers who lose custody of their children to abusive partners. Shot on a shoestring budget and narrated by Waller, the film screened at several independent film festivals, as well as at the Battered Mothers Custody Conference in Albany, N.Y., and won Best Social Documentary at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in 2001.

Now, Waller is revisiting the controversial subject. In 2007 and 2008, she attended the Battered Mothers Custody Conference and teamed up with two other filmmakers to record more than 12 hours worth of interviews. The result is a 14-minute film short that will be shown at the sixth annual Battered Mothers Custody Conference, taking place in Albany from January 9 to 11, 2009. The film was edited by Jessie Beers-Altman (COM’09), a graduate student in COM’s department of film and television, whose documentaries A Tradition of Sound and Andy were screened at last year’s Redstone Film Festival. “I love editing, but this was tough because I’d never edited such heart-wrenching material,” Beers-Altman says. “These women aren’t actors. Their suffering is real, and it’s awful.”

The short is comprised of chilling statistics and tearful testimonials by more than a dozen mothers. “Once we physically remove ourselves from the harm, in a lot of ways it gets worse,” says one of the women.

“I filed for divorce and instead of living in the hell of the abuser at home, I started living in the hell of the court,” another says.

For Small Justice, Waller also interviewed experts such as Louisiana attorney and child welfare advocate Richard Ducote, psychiatrist Carolyn Newberger of Children’s Hospital in Boston, and Karen Winner, author of Divorced from Justice: The Abuse of Women and Children by Divorce Lawyers and Judges. But none of the fathers or lawyers involved in the cases would participate in the film — making it a controversial and one-sided documentary, Waller says, and a film that media outlets are reluctant to pick up. “They’re afraid the courts will get involved,” she says. “They don’t want a libel suit.”

Waller hopes that her new film’s length — just 14 minutes — will find a new audience at conferences and on the Web.

“The more publicity this issue gets,” she says, “the more likely we will change the court system.”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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