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Cinéma Vérité

By Sheryl Flatow

Here’s a shocking statistic: close to 70 percent of all battered women in this country lose custody of their children to their abusive spouse—who is more than likely abusing the children as well.

It happened to Holly Collins in 1992. Her ex-husband was granted full custody of their two children, Zachary and Jennifer, even though the court concluded that Holly had been abused, a finding that unexpectedly worked against her. The judge decided that the abuse left her unstable, making her a danger to her children. So Zachary and Jennifer went to live with the man who was harming them physically and emotionally. Eighteen months later, having exhausted every legal avenue open to her, Collins did the only thing she could to ensure her children’s safety: with their full cooperation, she kidnapped them. She evaded an intensive FBI manhunt and eventually made her way to the Netherlands, where she became the first American to be granted asylum for domestic violence.

“People just don’t believe that this can happen in America,” says Garland Waller, assistant professor of film and television, and award-winning producer, writer, and director. “But the truth is we have a family court system that doesn’t protect children. It’s a national scandal of monumental proportions, and the mainstream media have failed to tell the story.”

Waller is hoping that No Way Out But One, her new feature-length documentary, will be a catalyst for change. This moving film chronicles Collins’s saga from abused wife to refugee, with an emphasis on her Kafkaesque journey through family court. The documentary exposes an unjust justice system that leaves vulnerable women and children at risk all over the country. “Holly’s story is powerful because she’s one of the few women who was able to protect her kids,” says Waller. “And she was only able to protect them by leaving the country.”

Family courts are so biased against battered women, Waller says, that attorneys who specialize in this field frequently tell their clients not to bring up sexual abuse, child abuse, or domestic violence in divorce proceedings, because they will almost certainly lose custody of their children if they do. Judges in cases like Collins’s often cite parental alienation syndrome (PAS), a term coined by the late psychiatrist Richard Gardner. Gardner contended that during divorce proceedings, children may claim abuse in order to side with one parent—usually the mother—who has indoctrinated them into saying untrue things about the other parent, including making accusations of abuse.

“PAS has been debunked and discredited over and over,” says Waller. “It’s junk science. But the courts accept it. There is also a belief that you might beat your wife, but you won’t hurt your kids. Statistically, that’s not true. But even if there’s visible abuse, the judges can ignore it. It’s outrageous.”   

Waller has been trying to draw national attention to the dysfunctional aspects of the family court system for well over a decade, ever since she heard from friends at law firms that many battered women were losing custody battles. In 2001, she produced her first documentary on the subject, the award-winning Small Justice: Little Justice in America’s Family Courts. But despite Waller’s efforts, no network or cable station would touch the story. Responses ranged from concerns that this was a case of “he said, she said,” and fear of litigation to outright disbelief.

Undaunted, Waller sought to find a subject whose story was compelling and unassailable. In 2008, at the Battered Mothers Custody Conference, which she attends annually, Waller heard Jennifer Collins speak about what had happened to her family. Through Jennifer, she developed an online relationship with Holly, which led to the documentary.

The film took three years to complete. It was edited by Erika Street, then a graduate student at BU. Waller and Barry Nolan, her husband and co-producer, pored over court documents, medical records, FBI files, depositions, and other research material. They shot 67 hours of film over 18 days in Amsterdam and five American cities. Waller is now searching for a distributor or a television network to broadcast the film.

Meanwhile, she continues to screen the documentary, which has earned a variety of prestigious awards, including Best Documentary at the Bare Bones International Film and Music Festival. Additionally, the Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Foundation is including the film as an insert in a book of lectures to be published from the Our Broken Family Courts conference in March. The foundation plans to present the book to members of Congress and the Department of Justice.

“We need federal legislation that says no family court can receive one federal dime until judges take into account allegations or evidence of domestic violence,” says Waller. “It’s a story that needs to be reported. What we have here is a systematic failure.”

Note: No Way Out But One has since been shown on the Discovery Channel, and Passion River films will distribute the film.

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