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PBS film ignites fathers' rights debate

By Wendy McElroy
web posted November 14, 2005

A father is demanding a public retraction from the Public Broadcasting System and threatening to sue for libel after the network broadcast a show that he says wrongly portrayed him as an abusive husband and father.

Dr. Scott Loeliger says the producers of the show ignored extensive court findings, records and testimony that he claims prove it was his ex-wife, and not he, who abused their daughter and her half-sister.

Loeliger, a medical doctor in Northern California, says he provided documentation of the mother’s abuse to a co-producer of the show, "Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories," six months before it aired, and that his pleas to have his case removed from the show were ignored.

Aired by PBS on Oct. 20, the much-publicized documentary presents "children and battered mothers [who] tell their stories of abuse at home and continued trauma within the courts," which allegedly return children to abusive parents.

A spokeswoman for PBS, Director of Corporate Communications Jan McNamara, says the accuracy of "Breaking the Silence" is under "official review."

In the show, Loeliger’s daughter, identified as Amina, now 16, says: "My father has a way of making important people…[believe]…he is a good father and he has never done anything wrong and that I am almost crazy and abusive."

But Loeliger says Amina’s mother lost custody of Amina and her half-sister on Aug. 19, 1998, when a Tulare County, Calif., juvenile court found her liable for eight counts of child abuse, including physical abuse.

Loeliger received full custody of Amina in 1998; a torturous custody battle ensued over the next six years until, at Amina's request, full custody was returned to the mother in 2004.

Last April, the father provided documentation of the his ex-wife's abuse to co-producer Dominique Lasseur of Tatge-Lasseur, a New York-based production company.

Five letters ensued, two from Loeliger's attorney, Dennis Roberts.

Loeliger demanded the removal of the segment with Amina and her mother. Lasseur responded by email, "whatever may have happened in…" Amina's…"early childhood, the courts at this time are not persuaded by your arguments and have awarded physical custody…to her mother."

Lasseur gave assurance that real names would not be used and extended a disclaimer to Loeliger, who refused to be interviewed for the documentary. The father explained, "I didn't want to be on national TV 'outing' my daughter as a liar or debating about her life."

The disclaimer is displayed at the end of the segment featuring Amina and her mother. It reads, "Amina's father…contends that her mother deliberately alienated her from him. He is trying to regain physical custody of her through court proceedings."

The controversy is broader than one father's protest.

The show argues against what has become a cause celebre in the father's rights movement: Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). PAS is said to occur when one parent willfully causes a child to become indifferent or hateful towards the other parent. Father's rights advocates point to PAS to explain the hostility and accusations expressed by some children toward alienated parents, usually fathers.

Critics of the fathers' rights movement and "Breaking the Silence" contend that PAS does not exist as a valid psychiatric syndrome.

National radio host Glenn Sacks launched a campaign to protest what he called the film's "extremely one-sided" "harmful and inaccurate view of divorce and child custody cases."

In an article entitled "PBS Declares War on Dads", Sacks not only disputed the premise of the documentary -- that courts assign custody to abusive fathers -- but also its use of statistics. PBS has reportedly received over 6,000 protest calls, emails and letters.

Women's rights organizations have launched a counter-effort. The National Organization for Women advised their membership to send emails of support to PBS, noting, "Your emails are especially important, as we know that PBS is being flooded with emails from bogus 'fathers' rights' activists opposing the airing of the film."

The documentary's ultimate credibility may hinge on one question: does it incorrectly portray Amina's mother as an heroic mom instead of a child abuser?

Loeliger's argument that he and the mother have been misrepresented has precedent. Loeliger says he first learned of the accusations of his abuse through a Jan. 20, 2005 Davis Enterprise article titled "Teen Turns Tug-of-War Lessons Into Message." It claimed that Loeliger had verbally and physically abused his daughter.

On April 5, the Enterprise published a retraction and an apology to Loeliger, stating that the story "contained many factual inaccuracies."

The stakes on a comparable apology from PBS are high.

Amina has become one of the public faces of child abuse promoted by organizations such as the Courageous Kids Network (CKN), a California group that endorsed "Breaking the Silence." CKN is self-described as "a growing group of young people, whose childhood was shattered by biased and inhumane court rulings, which forced us to live with our abusive parent, while restricting or sometimes completely eliminating contact with our loving and protective parent."

Such advocates point to "Breaking the Silence" as a reason to reform the family court system. But Loeliger and father's rights advocates demand verification for the stories and statistics upon which future policy may be based.

Both sides are in eloquent agreement on one point: they wish to protect children.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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