Reporter’s Notebook: When Family Court Fails

A young woman with shoulder-length brown hair and wearing a pale blue sweater faces forward and appears to be speaking in a screen-grab image from a TikTok video.

Courtesy of Ally Cable.

Ally Cable tells her story on TikTok. An expert witness whom she had never met convinced a family court judge that Cable’s mom had brainwashed her and her younger sister into lying about their dad’s sexual abuse. He was given full custody of the girls until they turned 18.

I’ve been a print reporter for decades, but my venture into audio journalism this past year as a contributor to the San Francisco Public Press’ “Civic” podcast and radio show has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career. Through this work, I get to take a deep dive into issues that have a huge impact on people’s lives and to explore with you how systemic change can happen. 

Most recently, the radio team has been developing a series about the way family courts handle allegations of abuse. And in a nutshell, what I’ve learned is not good. 

It all began last fall when the “Civic” team thought it would be interesting to interview reporter Viji Sundaram about a series of articles she recently wrote for the Public Press. The “Civic” episode featuring Viji revealed the way family court judges often dismiss a form of domestic abuse called coercive control. 

As part of my research, I looked for victims of abuse who were mistreated in family court. Those are not easy conversations. It’s a tough balance asking people to talk about their most traumatic experiences while being careful not to retraumatize them.

But as soon as I started reaching out, we got a landslide of social media messages, texts and emails from people who were eager to talk about their horrific stories. And they felt that injustices happening in family court are vastly underreported. 

I found out that over the last 10 years, hundreds of children across the country have been killed after family court judges dismissed abuse allegations. In response to this trend, state Sen. Susan Rubio tried to get a bill passed that would expand the California Family Code to include coercive control in family court hearings and criminal trials. That version of the bill failed (another is in the works) and we thought the movement behind it merited a second episode

Now we’re about to release our third episode of a four-part series on abuse allegations and family courts. This episode is about the industry built around defending people accused of child abuse. It ramped up about 40 years ago with one man’s pseudo psychological theory called parental alienation syndrome. 

His name was Richard Gardner, and he gained undue credibility as an unpaid, part-time Clinical Professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University, which allowed him to launch his moneymaker: being hired as an expert witness in child custody cases. His online biography says he testified in about 400 cases in 25 states, and repeatedly got away with claiming, without evidence, that vindictive mothers brainwash their kids into lying in 90% of cases where fathers are accused of sexual abuse. 

Gardner’s theory has elicited vigorous pushback and has been denounced by many academic studies going back to the 1990s, when the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry predicted that lawyers would have a field day with this theory. And that’s exactly what happened, despite the professional outcry. 

Gardner’s cottage industry has become a booming business of paid witnesses who claim expertise in parental alienation. And family court judges regularly grant custody to a parent accused of abuse after hearing expert witnesses testify that the other parent brainwashed their child into lying. 

One lawyer who uses Gardner’s theories to defend clients accused of child abuse told me that in all his cases, the court decided the child was lying about being abused. Today, dozens of adults who were accused of lying as kids — and handed over to parents they said were abusing them — say they were telling the truth. I talked to one who is fighting against harmful family court decisions and trying to stop what happened to her from happening to other children.

I’m working with our producer, Liana Wilcox, to finish a “Civic” episode set to air next week about the harm caused by these theories. We’ll let you know when you can find it on our website in an upcoming newsletter. Subscribe to “Civic” from the San Francisco Public Press on your favorite podcast platform to access the episode as soon as it’s available. 

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