Breaking The Silence: A Public Television Show On Children being Taken From Their Parents
Producer Dominique Lasseur: "We didn’t set out to produce a piece about custody issues. We had planned to make a documentary about the impact of domestic violence on children. We really wanted to show stories of what was being done to help children who were raised in domestic violence environments. What we found was one story after another of protective mothers having their children taken away from them and given in sole or partial custody to the very man who terrorized the mother and the children. It was so outrageous, that when we heard the first stories we thought they were aberrations, but then we found that this was in fact happening often and everywhere. We knew at that point that this was the story to concentrate on".
Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories
New PBS Documentary Reveals Surprising Information about Child Abuse and the
Shocking Inadequacies of Family Courts across the Country
INTERVIEW WITH DOMINIQUE LASSEUR, PRODUCER OF “BREAKING THE SILENCE: CHILDREN’S STORIES”
Written by Staff
Saturday, 24 July 2010 10:31
PBS Documentary “Breaking The Silence The Children’s Stories”
What Breaking the Silence Means
Interview with Dominique Lasseur
Documentary film producer Dominique Lasseur set out to explore the failures of the family court system in “Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories.” But when public television broadcast the program in the fall of 2005, the father’s rights movement was quick to react with scathing criticism and a deluge of viewer complaints.
What compelled you to take on this issue?
We didn’t set out to produce a piece about custody issues. We had planned to make a documentary about the impact of domestic violence on children. We really wanted to show stories of what was being done to help children who were raised in domestic violence environments.
What we found was one story after another of protective mothers having their children taken away from them and given in sole or partial custody to the very man who terrorized the mother and the children. It was so outrageous, that when we heard the first stories we thought they were aberrations, but then we found that this was in fact happening often and everywhere. We knew at that point that this was the story to concentrate on.
When did you become convinced that there was a systemic problem within the family court system?
I met a woman in New Jersey and I spent an afternoon listening to her story. She had been divorced for two to three years and had lost custody of her kids. Her ex-husband was making her life a total prison by dragging her into court every month. She was a professional, intelligent woman, and I thought this can’t be happening. This is clearly a horrible story, but it has to be one case in a million.
But looking further we found the same story everywhere, in Florida, New Orleans, Ohio, California, etc. I spoke with dozens of women who were very candid about what they had endured. After listening to one story after another, there was no way to ignore the extent of the problem.
We chose to feature the stories where there were extensive court proceedings so that we could verify that what the women was telling us was what she had testified in court as well. So there was a clear history of allegations of domestic violence and/or child physical or psychological abuse. All the women we interviewed went to court believing the system was fair, not thinking for a moment their kids could be taken from them.
It seems that we are now on this issue where we were 20-25 years ago on domestic violence. I would assume that it was as difficult at that time to talk about domestic violence, as it is to talk about this particular issue now. People don’t want to believe it. They don’t want to know about it. To tell you the truth, many in my interviews I said to the woman I was interviewing, “It would be easier to believe that you were fabricating all this because what you’re telling me is so horrendous. It feels like you’re telling me a story about some remote country where there is no notion of justice.” And the fact that it’s happening here in America was unbelievable, is unbelievable.
In your opinion what is the underlying problem?
In my view, the problem is that while criminal courts have made tremendous progress in dealing with domestic violence, family courts are not as informed about the dynamics of family violence.
Why hasn’t the family court system progressed in the same way as the criminal court system?
On the record family court judges say to women, “You’re an intelligent, professional woman, so I don’t believe you’ve been abused.” You would not hear a judge in criminal court say that because people know that domestic violence is not just happening in inner city, poor neighborhoods. That’s one example.
The other example is people who are aware of the dynamic of domestic violence know what an abuser looks like and behaves like; they know that someone who is professional looking can be behind closed doors someone who has terrorized his wife and family. In fact, you have doctors, attorneys, actors who all look fabulous to the community but who are violent abusers. I think it comes down to a lack of training, lack of accountability.
What is the long-term impact of this problem?
As long as this situation continues we will undo years of progress on domestic violence because women are put in a Catch-22. If they don’t report child abuse or domestic violence, they stand the risk of losing their kids because they failed to protect them. But if they do disclose domestic violence or sexual abuse then the kids are at risk of being taken away because the mothers will be blamed for alienating them or fabricating charges.
Was it difficult to find a network to back your show?
No, I can’t say it was hard. We’ve been producing programs for Public Television for more than 20 years. I’m glad and proud that they are broadcasting our programs. We co-produced Breaking the Silence with Connecticut Public Television and it was aired nationally by PBS.
But the backlash has been pretty strong. There’s been an organized campaign mostly by father’s rights groups to demand that PBS stop distributing the program. They characterized it as an attack on fathers. This is akin to saying because you’re doing a documentary on the Holocaust you’re accusing all Germans. It makes no sense. But it has given them a forum and they have jumped on it.
Our point was not to deny that some men are victims of domestic violence. We did not seek to portray all men as rabid violent abusers. What we wanted to say is simple: children should not be put in the custody of a parent who is endangering them. In reviewing the show, ombudsmen for both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS criticized Breaking the Silence for lacking balance.
How do you respond?
The CPB Ombudsman, Ken Bode, clearly had some personal axe to grind. He did not bother to contact us before writing his “report” and simply regurgitated the fathers’ rights arguments. He went on to write two more “updates” without any indication that he was interested in the fairness and balance he claimed our documentary was lacking. The PBS Ombudsman did a more honest job even if we disagreed with his conclusions. And unlike Ken Bode, he published letters he received from people who disagreed with his report.
PBS’s official statement on the film indicated that, “The producers approached the topic with the open mindedness and commitment to fairness that we require of our journalists. Their research was extensive and supports the conclusions drawn in the program. Funding from the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation met PBS’s underwriting guidelines; the Foundation had no editorial influence on program content. However, the program would have benefited from more in-depth treatment of the complex issues surrounding child custody and the role of family courts and most specifically the provocative topic of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Additionally, the documentary’s ‘first-person story telling approach’ did not allow the depth of the producers’ research to be as evident to the viewer as it could have been.”
Did you look for a father who had a similar experience to some of the mothers featured in your show?
Yes, I spoke with a father’s organization and it was clear that that they had a specific political agenda that they wanted to bring to this. The women we interviewed were simply mothers who were trying to protect their kids.
Your main source of funding for Breaking the Silence, the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation, has also distanced itself from the program. Are you surprised by this?
The Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation did not distance itself from the program. There are very strict guidelines for PBS underwriters who are not to exercise any control over the editorial content of the programs they support. Mary Kay simply made it clear that these rules had been respected and that we the filmmakers had full editorial control. The work of the foundation and of Mary Kay Corporation on the issue of domestic violence is remarkable and will continue to affect positively the lives of thousands of women across the country.
It seems that the discussion about Breaking the Silence has turned into a debate over style rather than substance. Would you agree?
If the documentary helps in any way to open a dialogue about how family courts are victimizing the very families they are supposed to protect, then any debate will have been positive.
Has there been any positive outcome?
Yesterday, I was in Westchester County where I showed an eight-minute excerpt of Breaking the Silence to family court judges and personnel. Some were aware of the issues we presented and others were surprised. But it was very positive to see this information being used. You are not the first journalist to get into hot water after reporting on this topic. Kristen Lombardi, another contributor to this book, was sued and lost after writing an expose in the Boston Phoenix.
Why do you think these stories generate so much of a backlash?
These are complex stories filled with pain and extreme passions. There are strong vested interests that want to keep the public from knowing what is going on in family courts. I believe we’re approaching a tipping point when people will demand more accountability from our courts.
What advice do you give to other journalists who want to cover this issue?
My only advice is, get your facts straight, get good insurance and get a good attorney.
Are you planning to do a follow up to Breaking the Silence?
While our next project will not be on domestic violence, we are committed to do more on this issue and to follow up on what we have learned with Breaking the Silence.
View the Entire PBS Documentary - Breaking The Silence; Children's Stories here.
Premieres Thursday, October 20, 2008 at 10 pm ET on most PBS stations (check local listings)
(Hartford, CT) – It is no secret that domestic violence has devastating, long-term effects on children. For
the past two decades, the evidence has been mounting in psychological studies and academic journals.
What is lesser known is that many domestic batterers are successfully using custody and visitation litigation to abuse their families further.
Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories — premiering Thursday, October 20 at 10 pm ET on most
PBS stations (check local listings) — is a powerful new PBS documentary that chronicles the impact of
domestic violence on children and the recurring failings of family courts across the country to protect
them from their abusers. In stark and often poignant interviews, children and battered mothers tell their
stories of abuse at home and continued trauma within the courts. Co-produced by Tatge-Lasseur
Productions and Connecticut Public Television (CPTV), this one-hour special also features interviews
with domestic violence experts, attorneys and judges who reveal the disturbing frequency in which
abusers are winning custody of their children and why these miscarriages of justice continue to occur.
This program is made possible by funding from the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation.
One of the most effective ways an abusive father can inflict pain and declare his domination is to take
custody of his children away from their mother. As Joan Meier, an attorney and professor of clinical law,
explains, “To win custody of the kids over and against the mother’s will is the ultimate victory…short of
killing the kids.” While there may be a perception in society that the family court system has a maternal
preference, statistics show that, in the past twenty years, fathers are more often being awarded custody.
Furthermore, in family court cases where mothers allege battery, fathers are given custody two-thirds of
Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories also explores a controversial theory called Parental
Alienation Syndrome (PAS), which has been used in countless cases by abusive fathers to gain custody of
their children. The theory states that the custodial parent (most often the mother) is alienating the child
against the father by raising false allegations against him. Despite being discredited by the American
Psychological Association and similar organizations, PAS continues to be used in family courts as a
defense for why a child is rejecting the father.
The documentary profiles several shocking stories of abuse further complicated by the courts, including
the story of Karen and her three children. Karen’s suspicions of her husband’s sexually abusive behavior
were confirmed through a medical exam. However, when the custody case came to trial, a court-appointed
psychologist, or evaluator, testified that Karen was using Parental Alienation Syndrome to turn her children
against their father. The psychologist never read the medical and police reports of the case and never
interviewed the children. All three children were awarded custody to their dad.
Karen’s son Jeff, who left his father’s custody when he turned eighteen, now serves as an advocate for
children in similar abusive situations as a member of the Courageous Kids Network. His two younger sisters
still live with their father.
Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories also features interviews with New York Yankees Manager
Joe Torre, who dealt with domestic violence as a child, and in 2003, started the Safe-at-Home Foundation
to help educate people about the issue; and Walter Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Parade magazine,
who recounts the emotional and physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father.
Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories is a follow-up to the acclaimed 2001 PBS documentary,
Breaking the Silence: Journeys of Hope, which focused on women and domestic abuse. “Journeys of
Hope documented how much we, as a society, made progress to combat domestic violence and serve its
victims,” explains producer Dominique Lasseur. “Children Stories reminds us that a lot needs to be done
to better protect our children from the long term effects of living with violent abusers.” Both documentaries
were funded by the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation,
For Immediate Release
Contact: Lee Newton, CPTV, (860) 275-7285
Sharron McDevitt, Hill & Knowlton, (212) 885-0393
Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories – Page 2
Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories is made possible by the generous support of the Mary Kay Ash
Charitable Foundation. Started in 1996, the mission of the foundation is two-fold: eliminating cancers
affecting women by supporting top medical scientists who are searching for a cure for breast, uterine, cervical and ovarian cancers; and ending the epidemic of violence against women by providing grants to
women’s shelters and supporting community outreach programs. The Foundation wholeheartedly supports
education and awareness on the issue of domestic violence.
Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories is co-produced by Tatge/Lasseur Productions, and its principals,
Catherine Tatge and Dominique Lasseur. Tatge/Lasseur have a long and successful history of producing
programs for PBS, including The Question of God: C.S. Lewis & Sigmund Freud, Dances of Life, Holo
Mai Pele, CeCe Winans: A Gospel Celebration and Breaking the Silence: Journeys of Hope. Tatge/Lasseur
have had close association with Bill Moyers on several projects. With Moyers, they co-produced Genesis: A
Living Conversation and Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, the latter of which earned Tatge an
The documentary is co-produced by Connecticut Public Television (CPTV), a nationally recognized producer
and presenter of quality public television programming, including Barney & Friends™, Alan Alda in
Scientific American Frontiers, Bob the Builder™, and Wounded in Action. Entering its 43rd year, CPTV
remains committed to bringing the best in educational programming and services to Connecticut and the
Co-Producers: Tatge/Lasseur Productions and Connecticut Public Television.
Underwriter: The Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation.
Producer: Dominique Lasseur. Director: Catherine Tatge.
Executive-in-Charge (CPTV): Larry Rifkin.
Format: Closed captioned
PBS stations: Lee Newton, Connecticut Public Television, 860-275-7285; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
National Press: Sharron McDevitt, Hill and Knowlton, (212) 885-0393 email: email@example.com
Video on Parents losing Their Children
PART 2-Family Court Crisis - Our Children at Risk
Family Court Destroys Families Part 2 of 3
Family Court Destroys Families Part 3 of 3
Judge Myles 1 of 2
Judge Myles 2 of 2
Safe At Home Foundation