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Examining America’s Family Courts

COM prof’s documentary highlights national scandal


Filmmaker Garland Waller deals in unpleasant facts. Take this one: according to the American Psychological Association, fathers who abuse their families are more likely to win custody of their kids than those who don’t. In her latest documentary, No Way Out But One, Waller, a College of Communication assistant professor of film and television, brings one desperate mother’s custody struggle to the screen—and, she hopes, to living rooms nationwide.

In 1994, Holly Collins ran. Despite her broken nose, her son’s fractured skull, and other terrifying reports of alleged abuse, a judge had awarded her husband full custody of their children. When her three kids—then all under 12 years of age—pleaded with her to protect them, Collins took them and ran. The four unlikely fugitives swerved across the continent and away from the clutches of the FBI before making a dash for the Netherlands. There, Collins blurted out a plea for asylum; after years in refugee camps, she would become the first American woman to be granted sanctuary in the northern European country because of domestic violence.

No Way Out But One is a $40,000 documentary with all the ingredients of a taut big-budget flick. Waller kept the price tag for her documentary about Collins below Hollywood averages by adding her filmmaking students to the production team.

“I picked the students who were politically committed to this kind of issue and really wanted to go the extra mile,” she says. “As a producer, not as a professor, I love working with those people who say, ‘Teach me, show me, and I’ll give you my time and energy.’”

Not everyone—the original family court judge included—has always been as convinced about the veracity of Collins’ abuse allegations as have Waller and her students. Even 18 years later, Waller has faced down doubters at screenings. “I am confident, 100 percent, that we have told the truth,” she says. “We’ve got FBI documents, legal documents, documents from the hearings, and letters from the doctors who saw the children.”

The film’s editor, Erika Street (COM’11), who also put together a 14-minute short of the documentary, shares that confidence. She sifted through a wealth of background information, and when she got lost in the details, appreciated being dragged up for a look at the bigger story. “The project was a good reminder of how important it is to have people watch your edits at various stages,” Street says.

Boston University BU, College of Communication COM assistant professor Garland Waller, Bare Bones International Film and Music Festival, No Way Out but One documentary winner

Garland Waller on the red carpet at the Bare Bones International Film and Music Festival, in Muskogee, Okla., where No Way Out But One won Best Documentary. Waller’s film has garnered several awards. Photos courtesy of Garland Waller

No Way Out But One first aired in late October on the Documentary Channel and has had several subsequent showings. The film will be available for purchase in March, and Waller is optimistic that it will find a wider audience. Her previous documentary on custody battles, the award-winning Small Justice: Little Justice in America’s Family Courts, was largely restricted to film festivals; Waller suspects that was because it was such tough viewing. “I wasn’t able to find one story that had a happy ending,” she says.

Collins’ story is different (we won’t completely spoil the surprise). But there’s a wider tale that needs a happily-ever-after, too. Waller says abused women who want to win custody battles are often advised to keep quiet about the cruelty; it improves their chances in court. It’s a wrong that Waller—and the students who worked with her—are determined to right.

Find a trailer and more info on Garland Waller’s documentary here.

Andrew Thurston can be reached at thurston@bu.edu.

A version of this story appeared in the spring 2012 edition of COMtalk.


11 Comments on Examining America’s Family Courts

  • Robert Gartner on 01.08.2013 at 7:50 am

    Garland Waller supports groups that reject the existence and credibility of Parental Alienation(PA). Holly Collins story serves as an excellent example for me. If indeed it is based in fact, which the organization Fathers and Families repudiated with different facts, then my story is a case in point for the existence of systematic Parental Alienation and how wrong ‘well doers’ can be. Perpetrator mother was rewarded with a return to custody of my daughter by one of Waller’s affiliates, Justice for Children (JFC). JFC rejects PA and is a gender biased group, publicly making such statements to the press in the Houston Chronicle of May 2, 2007.

  • Tony on 01.08.2013 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for giving a voice to those who yell quietly for help.

  • Alex on 01.08.2013 at 1:35 pm

    So, having done some research into this case, the problem is that there is a large amount of evidence that Holly Collins is mentally ill, has fabricated these claims of abuse, and in fact was endangering her children. This has, in fact, been the legal opinion of seven different judges in the state of Minnesota, which. To say that “Not everyone—the original family court judge included—has always been as convinced about the veracity of Collins’ abuse allegations as have Waller and her students” is a drastic understatement.

    Here is a quote from an less sypathetic investigation into the case: “Holly Collins’ claims about her high-profile custody case are disputed by her own mother, grandmother, sister, brother, stepfather, former in-laws, her ex-husband and his wife, the father of her third child and his wife, numerous doctors, Guardians ad Litem, social workers, mental health professionals, and all seven judges who have heard this case.

    For decades Holly Collins has made false accusations of abuse against a wide variety of people, including her mother, stepfather, both of the fathers of her children, both of the subsequent wives of the fathers of her children, as well as former landlords and neighbors. Holly’s own words and actions have continually contradicted her claims of being abused. And while Holly Collins detailed for the court over 50 rapes and violent assaults Mark Collins allegedly committed against her over a 10-year period, she has never been able to produce witnesses to any of them.” Holly was also found by the court to have personality disorders, has a restraining order against her due to physical abuse from her sister who suffers from cerebral palsy, and accused her neighbors in Holland of repeatedly abusing her and her children (accusations that, like all the other one she has made, were found to be without merit). Here’s the link: (http://www.fathersandfamilies.org/2009/01/27/the-controversial-holly-collins-custody-case-what-really-happened/)

    Now I honestly don’t know who is right or wrong, although Occam’s razor suggests that it is more likely that one woman is mentally ill and was identified as such by the justice system than that her ex-husband is some criminal mastermind, capable of abusing her and her children for years without leaving any evidence accepted by a US court, aided and abetted by an international conspiracy of judges, social workers, medical professionals, and her own family. I also freely admit that some “father’s rights” groups like the one linked to above can be fronts for retrograde, mysoginistic ass-hats. My point is that responsible journalism, like film making, should try to present more than one side to such a complex issue.

    • Megan on 05.15.2013 at 2:07 pm

      I was thinking along these same lines. I had previously read a story similar to this one, and didn’t realize it was, in fact, the same one when I came across this article until you posted that quote. I was absolutely astonished that someone could make a documentary about women having to fight for custody, when, in fact, it is the other way around. There are multiple reports of women killing their children (and themselves) to avoid giving the father any custody. I was thinking about creating my own documentary on this issue, because I live in a home with 3 men who are all facing the same problem: Every Other Weekend Visitation. Thank you so much for your comment.

  • The court house lottery on 01.08.2013 at 4:25 pm

    These stories always have two sides. The bigger problem is a system that has become to quick criminalizing fathers for any “alleged” acts of abuse. Sadly the Lautenberg amendment which strips a convicted spouse of a fundamental human right was intended to prevent abuse but ironically it has caused many woman to be silent for too long while others abuse the system to seriously hurt their spouse. Having a special set of crimes for spouses and parents with unique punishments is the real civil rights crime here. First the police are required to pick sides and arrest someone and then the courts are compelled to pick sides and convict someone to ostensibly prevent further abuse even in the face of scant evidence; the real purpose of this feel good legislation is to protect the state from being sued for having not acted. Picking sides in any domestic dispute is always a very bad idea as these issues tend to be incredibly complex and benefit more from time with a marriage counselor than with legal counsel. Add to this state no fault divorce policies which encourage rather than discourage therapy and you have a system that is worse now than before the government got into the business of picking the winners and losers of domestic disputes and family problems.

  • FTBC on 01.08.2013 at 4:27 pm

    “Waller says abused women who want to win custody battles are often advised to keep quiet about the cruelty; it improves their chances in court. It’s a wrong that Waller—and the students who worked with her—are determined to right.”

    There’s a good reason for that. If there’s no documented history of abuse, then a woman suddenly trotting out “oh and by the way, he abused me” rightfully looks like character assassination to the court. Get proof of abuse, don’t drop the accusation in the middle of a custody hearing.

    My best friend was abused by her ex-husband. The photos of her bruises were a key part of him losing any chance at custody.

  • The court house lottery on 01.09.2013 at 11:28 am

    Noticed a typo in my post which incorrectly says “which encourage rather than discourage therapy”

    should read the reverse ie “discourage rather than encourage therapy”!!

  • Falsely Accused on 01.09.2013 at 6:08 pm

    “according to the American Psychological Association, fathers who abuse their families are more likely to win custody of their kids than those who don’t.”

    And the good dads who lose custody to abusive moms have no option other than death. Lies in family court kill 18,000 of them every year.

    Family courts favors abusers, regardless of gender. The reason is that lies, and false accusations, are not aggressively prosecuted. They are crimes, and abuse.

    The best interest of the children is to be assured never to have to live with a lying parent. Especially if the lie is used to get a fraudulent restraining order, which are granted without investigating the claims. “Yeah, but they all lie”, some say. How many murders are avoided by not letting perpetrators get away with it? Lies are no different, and as deadly as any murder weapon. “Jews must be eliminated” is a lie that killed millions of innocents.
    Domestic violence victims, MALE OR FEMALE, should not be persecuted by liars winning in Court. Parents in custody battles must be monitored and recorded by audio and video 24/7 to prevent or prosecute bad-mouthing, lies and alienation.

    Our kids deserve the truth. They don’t deserve to be stuck with an abuser who just got away with murder, by driving the victimized parent to apparent suicide.

    Victims of family court injustice may appear to kill themselves, but they are just like the victims who jumped off the burning World Trade Center: MURDERED. They don’t want to die, they are denied the right to live.

    You can’t take your own life when it was taken away from you.

    • Robert Gartner on 01.11.2013 at 10:10 pm

      Amen! Thank you for your thoughts! Say it seven times so society gets what you shared!

  • Dona Luna on 01.13.2013 at 10:56 pm

    I have 12 years of psychiatric records(taped recorded at time of visit) and then typed , and a former psychiatrist who practiced for 14 years and does is alternative, and no recorded abuse, with a resounding, it was the abuse , it was the recurrent trauma, and our 3 sons, were alienated , when he did not bother to communicate ,or get family counselling, early on, but did constantly blow his angry red headed temper, abused me with neglect and his all present power, by money… 3 sons, who for Christmas , made excuses for not meeting me to pick up their gifts, and finally the eldest stated via text he would see me in Hell… I think not… I have not given up, but given in to exposing this Dad, who never attended a OB or shrink appointment with me and only recently said to he (on discussing our 4, grandchild, a girl) that he did not recall our sons as infants.
    Exactly and he has shown so little respect for me , for his sons, yet he bankrolls them, treats them like friends not adult children. And he his all his bad money deals at my feet, blaming me for everything , lies on top of lies , including his no fault divorce , where my mental illness was not broached I was declared “of sound mind”, I received nothing for the sale of our home etc… I was not myself, because for the whole of our 21 years I was not supported by this man, this businessman , pillar of the community who has kept me from graduations , weddings, births and deaths, for his own selfish ego , soul less existence .. My sons know this but they were in a situation, beginning with my being medicated and toxic, ill; they chose the friend.. Many reverbs to this , life long and I have tried everything. Now I have way too much to share and it seems to be epidemic ..It must end. Our children are not prize or revenge tools

  • Jessie Hobbs on 01.14.2013 at 4:43 pm

    It is so true about the court system failing and causing the one parent hurt and loneliness.The family courts seem to be supportive of dead beat dads.I going through that with family court.The state taking my children and the small courts to.D.F.S taking my children.

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