Custody in crisis: How family courts put children in danger


Six years ago, in 2010, an appellate court in Tennessee affirmed a family court ruling that had awarded Darryl Sawyer* primary custody of his six-and-a-half-year-old son, Daniel.

The court ruled in favor of Sawyer despite evidence presented by his ex-wife that alleged he had sexually abused their child.

Three years earlier, Daniel returned from a visit with his father with suspicious bruises on his bottom. His mother, Karen Gill, immediately took the three-year-old boy to his pediatrician.

“Your instant reaction is that you don’t want it to be what it appears to be,” Gill said, choking back tears at the memory. “You really hope there’s another reason for why he has these marks on him.”

(*All family member names are pseudonyms to protect their privacy.)

This is the beginning of a story on about how family courts across the U.S. are putting children in danger. I began investigating this more than two years ago. A friend and colleague, Linda Jue, executive director and editor of the G.W.Williams Center for Independent Journalism, was looking for a reporter to tackle this project. She told me that, according to an advocate she’d been in touch with, family courts were putting children in danger by awarding custody to a parent who was abusing them. I was incredulous. We met with Kathleen Russell of the Center for Judicial Excellence. I still was skeptical. How could this really be happening in the United States?

Then I started talking to mothers – there are certainly fathers too who have lost custody of their children to a mother who allegedly abuses the children – but the majority of protective parents I was encountering were mothers. They told me their stories and then I requested documentation of the evidence of the alleged abuse, knowing that this was the only way for a story about this unbelievable and unconscionable subject to be taken seriously.

I talked with more than 30 parents and survivors all over the country. They told me how child protective services agencies, health care providers, and law enforcement agencies corroborated the alleged abuse of their children, yet still the family courts were allowing their abusive ex-spouses unsupervised visits or custody of their children.

Included in the article is the story of Alina (not her real name), a 16-year-old who is now back with her mother. She told me that while in her father’s custody, “Sometimes he would choke me until I passed out,” and how she had tried to kill herself by taking a bunch of pills, “but I always woke up.” She told me how her father would twist her arms in different directions and withhold food if she cried about missing her mother. Alina is much better now that she’s back living with her mother, but she still has lingering anxiety and depression.

This story is the first in an ongoing series that was published Dec. 1, 2016 by 100 Thus far, I have received many letters from parents facing similar battles as well as comments from child advocates.

I welcome any comments and tips for stories. Here’s a link to the article on 100


  1. Keep fighting weather they like it or not i did and my daughter had to talk to the mediator and after 2 years of having to sit acrossed from her father i learn to not be afraid any more he was a sick old man that wouldnt get help cps told me to get a restraining ordef turned in a fight for her right to not to have to sit in a room with her rapist the all have some look some jester some move to make the kids a victim again not my daughter even if we had to be on the run before he ever gt in a room with her alone again i promised her it was up to her for supervised visits she was so afraid after the took the restraining order off thank God we moved with out telling him were the police turned me into cps now they come out to make sure my daughter is ok with the mother that had to be putting this in her head even though theripist and theripist have told the courts she had told them enough that they belive her doctors to so i went and email every one i could turned in police department for not turming in all the evidence to DA went as far as emailing Obama just be the diggest pain in there ass My daughter told me i didnt save her after she told her story so i promise she wouldnt have to see him no matter what and thank the good lord above thats just what happened a good friend whos daughter had the same thing happen to her by her step dad got a lawyer and let him do the talking for her she wasnt so luck her son was put in his custody now hes with a rapist i go to court with het every time still healing good luck and all the love in the world to all of you still fighting to make laws change till the end


  2. If you want to view more cases of crimes agaisnt children and protective mothers, Google search the radio broadcast youtube interviews by Geerte Frenken. The radio show is, “Hell is for Children.” There is a cottage industry making billions of dollars a year using children as pawns for custody disputes post divorce. Attorneys pit parent against oarent and use kids in a game of tug of war (Angelina and Brad Pitt are a high profile example.) In the meantime children are being traumatized and our society as a whole will later pay the price.


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