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Custodians of Abuse

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By the time the couple’s divorce went to trial at Plymouth family court, in October 2001, the evidence against Johnson’s ex-husband seemed so credible that Johnson assumed that his attempt to gain custody "would go nowhere." The court, however, proved her wrong. According to court documents in the case, the Plymouth County judge issued a seemingly illogical ruling in March 2002 that shocks Johnson to this day. Not only did the judge downplay the DSS’s conclusions, but he assailed Julia’s therapist as "questionable." Thus the judge ruled that Johnson’s ex had not actually molested his daughter, and that Johnson had pushed the bogus charges "solely [in an] attempt to get back at the Father." The judge also warned that if Johnson "alienate[s]" Julia from her father, "a change in custody may be the only remaining action that can be taken by this Court to protect the child."

The decision has left Johnson, who’s filing an appeal, in disbelief. "I’m just devastated," she says. "I’ve been made to look like Mommy Dearest. I made up the allegations, and I harassed these professionals into investigating" the sex-abuse claims. She then offers, "All these social workers and therapists put their [professional] lives on the line just to make me happy? I don’t think so."

‘Which would you rather believe?’

ACCORDING TO a well-known 1994 national study of the incidence of child sexual abuse, one in five girls and one in 10 boys are molested before the age of 18 — and 70 percent of them are assaulted by their own fathers. These figures paint an ugly, uncomfortable picture. At the end of the day, it’s probably far easier for people — including judges, GALs, attorneys, and evaluators — to believe that spiteful women will fabricate child-sex-abuse allegations just to gain the upper hand in court.

"Which would you rather believe?" asks Elizabeth Clague, the Brockton attorney who is also representing Fink and Johnson in their appeals. When handling these custody disputes, she has heard family-court officers, judges, and her own colleagues dismiss sex-abuse charges as cases of "he said, she said." Clinging to this stalemate, Clague theorizes, makes their lives less painful, less complicated. "If you think all these women are sitting on their front stoops and conjuring up lies," she explains, "you can go home, flip on the television, and not have to worry about child sexual abuse."

As the studies by California NOW, Wellesley Centers for Women, and Neustein show, what happened to Clarke, [name deleted], Fink, and Johnson occurs more often than you’d think. As Johnson notes, she simply assumed the courts would rule against someone the DSS had found to be a child molester. "I believed the family courts would listen to the facts and do the right thing because I had truth on my side," she says. "Who’d have thought that court [officials] would not acknowledge abuse and protect children?"

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