Mark
Rosenthal

Breaking the Science: Ostrich Syndrome
Catherine Tatge and Dominique Lasseur's film "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories," which recently aired on some PBS stations, has been widely criticized for bias and inaccuracy in depicting a world in which the only abusive parents are fathers.

The film's inflammatory statement that "To win custody of the kids over and against the mother's will is the ultimate victory, short of killing the kids," ignores the fact that mothers are perpetrators in 59.1% of child fatalities, whereas the number for fathers is 39.5%. And when you factor out the 20.4% of fatalities involving both parents, twice as many children die at the hands of their mothers as their fathers. 1

The film also states that Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) "has been thoroughly debunked by the American Psychological Assn." The APA, however, begs to differ. Rhea K. Farberman, APA Communications Director states, "The American Psychological Association does not have an official position on parental alienation syndrome -- pro or con. The Connecticut Public Television press release is incorrect." 2

But the real bombshell happened Wednesday, when Glenn Sacks' website published a report stating that one of the mothers in the film had been found by a court to have committed eight counts of child abuse, and that the filmmakers were informed of that fact, yet chose to portray her as the victim anyway. 3

Back on October 18th, the CEO of Connecticut Public TV emailed a statement from Tatge and Lasseur regarding the program. The filmmakers have since posted a modified version of that reply on their website. 4 Here are some of their claims.

Tatge/Lasseur's statement: "When we began this project over a year ago, our goal was to produce a documentary about domestic violence and children. We had no preconceived notions about the issue ... no specific agenda to prove or disprove. The finished documentary is simply a result of where countless hours of extensive research and interviews took us."

There's an old saying, "Who pays the piper calls the tune." The Mary Kay Ash Foundation, which provided $500,000 of funding to make this film, has a history of publicity that focuses on female victimization while conveniently turning a blind eye to the 36% of domestic violence victims who are male. 5 Are Tatge and Lasseur asking us to believe that they were so naive as to be unaware of the Mary Kay Ash Foundation's bias when they agreed to accept the foundation's money? Do they really expect us to believe the Foundation would have hired them without an implicit understanding that the film they were paying for had to discredit Parental Alienation Syndrome?

It's been more than week since I submitted questions through Connecticut Public TV to be forwarded to the filmmakers. Among the things I asked were how many potential interviewees did the filmmakers decide not to use, and of those rejected, how many told stories that would have contradicted the film's premise?

To date they have sent no response. But other sources may shed some light on the questions I submitted:

  • Mike McCormick, director of the American Coalition of Fathers and Children says that Dominique Lasseur had scheduled an interview to take place in ACFC's Washington, D.C. offices last April, but at the last minute the filmmaker called to say the cameraman was sick. When McCormick called back to reschedule, Lasseur told him he already had enough material for the film.
  • Lee Newman, president of Stop Abuse For Everyone/NH, reports receiving a similar inquiry from Lasseur, but Lasseur lost interest when it became clear that Newman's inclusive perspective was quite different from the perspective evident in the final cut of the film. After several attempts by Newman to follow up, the filmmakers eventually they responded saying they already had enough information.
  • Tom Gallen, who was married to a violent woman for 17 years, was willing to tell his story of having been kicked, hit, punched, and bitten, hit in the groin while he was driving, and attacked with a knife. In spite of this provocation, he never hit back. He was never charged with anything. Yet, in spite of a dozen police reports documenting his wife's abusive behavior, the divorce judge assigned custody of their three children to the violent mother. Gallen provided a copy of email correspondence between him and Lasseur last April, in which Lasseur thanks him for taking the time to talk on the phone and asks Gallen to fax any documents Gallen thinks are relevant. Gallen says Lasseur told him he'd like to bring him to New York to film an interview, but Lasseur never followed up and wouldn't reply when Gallen tried to get in touch.
  • Gallen also told Lasseur he could put him in touch with someone else who'd convinced a skeptical judge that PAS was a factor in that person's case by producing journal written by the mother that said God wanted the father dead because he was evil. Although this is directly relevant to the topic of the film, Lasseur showed no interest in following up on this.

Other rejected interviewees may yet surface.

And then of course, there's the mother, found by the court to have committed child abuse, whom Tatge and Lasseur portray as a victim, disregarding numerous letters sent to the filmmakers, CPTV, and the Mary Kay Ash Foundation, between last April and early October. 6

It's impossible to know whether the filmmakers decided on their own to exclude anything that would call the film's premise into question, or whether someone above them ordered them to do so. It's not much of a stretch to consider that the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation might have insisted that for their half a million dollars, the film ought to tell the story they wanted it to tell.

Tatge/Lasseur's statement: "We as filmmakers are in no position to determine the scientific validity of PAS. However, the fact remains that the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Medical Association (AMA), have not recognized PAS as legitimate science."

Whether or not the APA or the AMA have recognized PAS would be relevant if their film said that PAS has not been recognized by those organizations. But that's not what the film says. Instead, it explicitly states that PAS has been thoroughly debunked by the APA. There's a big difference between saying the jury's still out and saying the verdict is guilty.

Tatge/Lasseur's statement: "Some individuals have expressed concern that the documentary only features the stories of women as the victims of domestic violence. Research shows that 'while women are less likely than men to be victims of violent crimes overall, women are five to eight times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner.' If we had featured the stories of one man and five women who had been victims of domestic abuse, statistically we would have grossly overstated the problems of men in this area."

If it's true that "women are five to eight times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner", then men constitute around 13.9% of all victims (halfway between the one man for every five to eight women that they claim). If they had featured the stories of one man and five women, they'd give the impression that 16.7% of victims are men. Overstating the number by 2.8% is what they call "grossly overstating" the problems of men? Apparently even they figured out how nonsensical their claim is, because when they posted the statement on their website, they removed the word "grossly".

But even the claim that "women are five to eight times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner" is highly questionable. This number comes from analysis of reported crimes, and for a whole constellation of reasons, men are far more reluctant to report being victimized by their spouses than women are. The National Violence Against Women Survey documents that victimized women (26.7%) were twice as likely as victimized men (13.5%) to report their victimization to the police. 7 Surveying representative population samples is a far more reliable way to estimate who's doing what to whom than trying to draw conclusions from the non-representative subgroup that files police reports. Those who want to minimize the significance of female perpetrated abuse prefer the distorted picture reflected by crime statistics.

Tatge/Lasseur's statement: "All we can do is offer, in the most open and transparent manner, the reasoning and research that went into this program."

"Open and transparent?" What more can I say?

It would be bad enough if this were just some minor show aired only once on PBS. But there are reports that the Mary Kay Ash Foundation is providing a stipend so that every battered women's organization in the country can put on private screenings of this film for their local judges and legislators. As I predicted in my article Breaking the Science: Misleading Stories 8 , it appears the film will be used in an attempt to drive public policy and law.

Years ago, while visiting Saratoga, N.Y., I remember being bewildered by the strangest monument I'd ever seen. One of the greatest generals of the American Revolution memorialized not by a statue of the general, but by a statue of his boot! The inscription on the monument described his actions without ever mentioning his name. The hero of that battle had subsequently tarnished his reputation so irreparably that the people of Saratoga could not bring themselves to erect a statue to him. The most they could stomach was to erect a statue to the leg injury he suffered in the battle. Filmmakers Tatge and Lasseur have done great work in the past. Their films of Joseph Campbell's interviews with Bill Moyers have garnered universal acclaim. But by their behavior in the making of this film, they have created an unflattering legacy for themselves, much as General Benedict Arnold created for himself. And when the great are brought low by their own actions, that's a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions.

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1 U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, Figure 4-2: Fatalities by Perpetrator Relationship, 2003, Child Maltreatment 2003, www.acf.dhhs.gov/programs/cb/publications/cm03/figure4_2.htm

2 Text of email:

From: Farberman, Rhea rfarberman@apa.org
Sent: Monday, October 24, 2005 10:01 AM
To: chuck@choisington.com
Subject: Position on PAS

Mr. Hoisington -- Thank you for your email. The American Psychological Association does not have an official position on parental alienation syndrome -- pro or con. The Connecticut Public Television press release is incorrect. I have notified both Connecticut Public Television and their PR firm of the inaccuracy in their press release.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Rhea K. Farberman, APR
Executive Director, Public and Member Communications
American Psychological Association

3 Glenn Sacks' website, "PBS Portrays Known Child Abuser as Hero, Juvenile Court Found Mother Culpable of 8 Counts of Child Abuse," www.glennsacks.com/pbs/loeliger.php

4 "Breaking The Silence: Children's Stories, Producer's letter regarding PAS," www.tatgelasseur.com/pages/bts_3.html

5 Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, U.S. Dept. of Justice, "Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey," November 1998, www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles/172837.pdf , Exhibit 7

6 Glenn Sacks' website, "Breaking the Silence's Producers Were Warned of Sadia's Record of Child Abuse," http://www.glennsacks.com/pbs/loeliger-producers-warned.php

7 Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, U.S. Department of Justice, "Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence, Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey," July 2000, www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/181867.pdf , p. 49

8 Mark B. Rosenthal, Breaking the Science: Misleading Stories , 2005, www.mediaradar.org/mr_breaking_the_science.php

© 2005, Mark Rosenthal

Source: Mark Rosenthal is a firm believer in the principle of equal treatment for all. He believes that the self-evident truth stated in the Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal shouldn't have an Orwellian coda saying "but some are more equal than others." Mr. Rosenthal has a particular interest in the issue of family violence. He advocates for a principled approach to the problem, with the goal of providing services to ALL victims and treatment to ALL perpetrators without regard to gender. He has been a featured speaker at York College (C.U.N.Y.)'s annual Domestic Violence Conference and has served on the board of the Battered Men's Helpline. mbr@arlsoft.com

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