Sunday, November 7, 2010

Junk science, child custody and Alec Baldwin

Actors Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger officially separated in 2000, and Basinger filed for divorce in 2001. Over the next several years, a very public custody battle over their daughter, Ireland, unfolded. On April 19, 2007, published an angry voicemail message from Baldwin to his daughter. In the message, Baldwin called his daughter a "rude, thoughtless little pig" and Basinger "a thoughtless pain in the ass." He subsequently apologized for the outburst on The View.

What may seem like ordinary celebrity gossip has had a much bigger impact. Baldwin recently wrote a book about his custody ordeal called A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Though Fatherhood and Divorce. As part of his research for the manuscript, Baldwin interviewed Jeannie Suk, a professor of family and criminal law. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:

[Governance Feminism is] the idea that feminism, which once criticized the law from the outside, is today actually in charge in many places in the law — among police, prosecutors, lawmakers, judges, and other legal actors. The feminism that often “governs” today is that strand developed by the legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon and that focuses on the subordination of women by men, particularly in intimate sexual relationships. Her influence on our legal system’s understandings of men and women cannot be overstated. If you talk to police, prosecutors, lawmakers, and judges about domestic violence, perhaps they have not read MacKinnon, but they often subscribe to the premise that men subordinate women through sex and violence.

In the book, Baldwin and co-author Mark Tabb suggest that feminism’s new and unprecedented supremacy across U.S. civil and criminal law (i.e., "Governance Feminism") has ruined the family court system.

Regarding child custody matters, Baldwin contends that courts are skewed in favor of mothers at the expense of alienating fathers. He suggests that fathers utilize Parental Alienation Syndrome to win custody of children. Because of Baldwin’s celebrity and access to media, his book has gained popularity amongst father’s rights organizations.

My concerns center around several issues. First, feminism does not equate to male bashing as Baldwin suggests. Contrary to Baldwin’s views, feminism desires social equality for both sexes. Feminists have also organized to further the rights and interests of women. One of the central interests of women, who are mothers, is the safety of their children. To presume that women engage in child custody disputes to punish fathers as part of a feminist agenda ignores the statistics on the prevalence of domestic violence and child abuse in families. Additionally, men do subordinate women through sex and violence; some of the statistics below demonstrate this in the context of domestic violence/child custody matters.

Second, there are hundreds of thousands of women in the U.S. without access to funds or decent legal counsel that look to the courts for assistance in protecting minor children in custody proceedings. It is often very difficult for them to obtain protection when domestic violence, child abuse, or substance abuse are involved in the custody battle. Further, custody litigation is used as an instrument of the batterers and child abusers to maintain or extend control and authority over their victims after separation. Phyliss Chesler interviewed 60 mothers involved in custody dispute and found that fathers who contest custody are more likely to win than their wives. In 82% of the disputed custody cases, fathers achieved sole custody, despite the fact that only 13% had been involved in child care activities prior to divorce. Moreover, 59% of fathers who won custody litigation, and half of the fathers who gained custody by private negotiation, had abused their wives.

Yet another concern I have with Baldwin's view is the imbalance of power in custody proceedings. Women are fearful of raising the issue of domestic violence and child abuse for fear that they will thereby lose custody of their children. In an article in Family Law Quarterly, Nancy Erickson said:

Battered women’s advocates often note that, in custody cases, the batterer often “looks better” to the court than the victim does because he is confident and calm…. She is still suffering the effects of his abuse and therefore may appear hysterical, weepy, angry or otherwise not “together”.

Officers of the court may be unreasonably suspicious of claims of child abuse and domestic violence in the context of custody/ visitation which can lead to decisions that are made on bad science, misinterpretation of fact and child custody evaluator bias. Many custody evaluators consider the issue of “alienation” more significant than domestic violence in making custody recommendations. As a result, many abused women and their children may find themselves re-victimized by the justice system after their separation.

In an article in the Family Law Quarterly, a survey of 201 psychologists from 39 states who conducted custody evaluations indicated that domestic violence was not considered by most to be a major factor in making custody determinations. Conversely, three-quarters of the custody evaluators recommended denying sole or joint custody to a parent who "alienates the child from the other parent by negatively interpreting the other parent's behavior."

Sometimes it seems that, as feminists, we are always moving in two-steps ahead, one-step back fashion. Assault of an intimate partner is now recognized as criminal behavior. New legislation created easier access to the courts for protection and restraining orders, heightened awareness and established protocols and procedures for prosecutors. The criminal justice system and relevant community services are more focused on the needs of children exposed to domestic violence, and children are recognized as indirect victims of domestic violence.

But changes in the laws relating to domestic violence have also altered the way family courts handle child custody proceedings. Many judges are being asked to consider domestic violence as a significant factor in determining the appropriateness of a violent spouse becoming a custodial parent, or even whether such a parent should have regular, unsupervised contact with children. But sadly, we find that tests to assess questions relevant to custody are completely inadequate on scientific grounds. Claims of some anointed experts about their favorite constructs like "Parental Alienation Syndrome" are fueled by the likes of Alec Baldwin, publicized by the media and then unquestioningly accepted as another legitimate reason to subordinate women by denying them custody of their children.

P.S.: Apparently, Baldwin's daughter has forgiven him in the meantime, as she went with him to accept his two SAG Awards.

1 comment:

Chez Marta said...

Rebecca, the problem with self-help books is that anybody can publish one, and readers of such books rarely consider the source. It is quite a bit self-serving for Alec Baldwin to advocate recognition of a medical syndrome which would have yielded him custody of his daughter. But I bet most male readers of his book will not examine Baldwin's motives, rather, they will follow his recommendations to the letter.

I actually remember my parents' divorce over 35 years ago, and remember all the "nice" things my father had to say about the female judge presiding over the proceedings. So, to say the least, Baldwin's idea is not novel at all. But go ahead, anti-feminists, and call us out on all that we, feminists, have achieved in over a century's time. Go ahead, blame us for your inability to control the outcome of a divorce!