By Mark David Blum, Esq.
This is for me, not for you. A week ago, a ghost crawled out of the ether and history. I tried to bury it again but it has nagged and eaten at my brain to the point that my only salvation is through exorcism by essay. To eject the demon, I have to unload it.
Ask any lawyer, regardless of their area of practice, and they will have to confess that over a career we encounter people and situations that defy explanation or even understanding. Sometimes all we can do bear witness to strangeness, cruelty, insanity, and corruption and do nothing but move forward with our lives and hope it showers off. Each of them leaves a wound that eventually scars over. You never forget; you just cant talk about it and instead, swallow the memory and move forward. This is the life we chose.
Back in 1997, I was an eyewitness to a horrible chain of events that destroyed a family and the lives of the people involved. It was about the ugliest case of corruption and dirt I had ever seen. At the center of this swirling story was an infant whose parents and extended families tore each other to shreds. A week ago, I bore witness to the long term result and how it impacted people 15 years later. My heart goes out to the real victims as well as the manufactured ones.
The story begins like this: A mild mannered relatively innocuous man with a large extended Italian family here somewhere in the Syracuse area meets, impregnates, and then marries a white irish girl with no real family. He is a laborer. She works for a local notorious bastard of a divorce attorney whom I knew personally. I got to know both parents through separate avenues as well as the families involved. Because of the uniqueness of my relationship and exposure to both sides, I had a bird’s eye vantage point as to what was going on and how everybody was perceiving events.
As could be foreseen early on, the relationship and then marriage was a disaster. They split up and the power play over custody began in earnest. Because dad’s family was large (albeit one generation off the boat from Sicily) and mom had no one except her own wackjob mother around, the two were able to work out a custody and visitation arrangement that sort of worked and sort of didn’t. The families hated each other and fought all the time and the situation deteriorated. Everybody always over reacted to even the smallest slight, however imagined or real, police were always involved, and conflict in custody handoffs and holidays became more the norm than the exception.
The child at this time is still an infant, in its’ second year of life. One day, the child comes home to mom after visitation with dad. Mom claims to notice ‘redness’ around the female infant child’s genitals, and then the child claims to have said, “daddy touched me.” Those were the only words said – “daddy touched me.”
Before I go further, I have to confess that I am the father of two grown daughters. If they read this, I apologize ahead of time for what I am about to say. The facts are that any father of daughters who was in any way involved in the care and raising of his children has ‘touched’ his daughter. I freely though not gleefully admit that I touched my daughter. It wasn’t pleasant but someone had to change diapers, wash body parts, put lotions on rashes, and bathe and dry them. Those are parental chores that leave no option but for a father to have to touch his daughter’s vagina. It’s not for fun. It is for duty. As offensive as it may read, these are the facts of life. Believe me, I would have much preferred never to have changed a diaper, bathed a child, or in any way had any involvement in such dirty chores. Had I freely admitted that I had not, what would you say about me as a father then?
Meanwhile, the otherwise normally vindictive nasty snarky mother seized upon what most of us retired parents would call ‘diaper rash’ and the magic words ‘daddy touched me’ and ran into the open arms of of Child Protective Services. With the wind of her employer at her back, a Family Court petition alleging child sexual abuse was filed against the father, any and all visitation with him or his family was immediately cut off, and an army of angry women was amassed against the father. Mom wanted dad gone from the child’s life. Her employment showed her how and her employer coached her path.
This is where I got involved. When the case came to trial (a pre-trial offer was rejected to drop the Petition if Father agreed to walk away and never see the child again), the line-up was impressive. The judge was a male. My client and I obviously were male. On the other side were the mother, her female DSS lawyer, her female personal lawyer, a highly respected well known female pediatrician and specialist in child sex abuse, a female child psychologist also a specialist in child sex abuse, another female nurse, and a smattering of other witnesses; all women.
Despite what was discussed in cross examination, I begin to drill into these witnesses. One thing I learned in that trial was that I was the only person in the room who could use the word “vagina”. Every female on the witness stand, be they doctor, psychologist, nurse, or civilian could not use that “word” (as if it were a dirty word). I asked every one of them if they were a parent of daughters. Everyone in that court room, including by serendipity the judge, answered in the affirmative.
So there I was, doing what I do best, and from each person on the witness stand, I asked a very simple question: “Have you ever touched your daughter’s vagina?” You would think that is an easy question to answer. I answered it above. Every female witness to testify could not, would not, but was eventually forced to answer that they had, in fact, touched their daughter’s vagina. A parent cannot help but do so. So when a young child of two years says, “daddy touched me”, it means nothing at all. Daddies do those things just like Mommies do. I think it was this point that scored the most points toward the eventual outcome of the trial.
A personal favorite moment in the trial came after the devastating testimony by mom’s “expert” witness proclaiming loudly and boldly how the child was manifesting symptoms of Child Sex Abuse Syndrome and other PTSD symptoms. She went on and on about specific behaviors, specific drawings, and other events and statements to cull a diagnosis that father was guilty of sexually molesting his daughter. It was ugly and I thought we were done.
A weekend came before the expert’s cross examination. Having nothing to do with nothing, I was contacted by a lawyer over the weekend who wanted a consult on a child sex abuse case in another county. We met and chatted and he showed me a report by the expert being used against his client. Voila, same expert. I read her report on the second case and it was a word for word mirror of the symptomology and history of the case in which she was testifying here. One glaring difference: Under an identical fact pattern, this expert declared no sex abuse. That report became the core of my cross when trial resumed. The end result, you can already guess, was a finding in favor of the father that the allegations were unfounded and the petition was dismissed. Yay dad.
So you would think the story ends here. Actually this is the point where the story picks up steam and morphs from a common bullshit family dispute into a horror that has haunted me now 15 years and which until now was a dark buried chapter in my professional career.
We still have a child at the center of a custody dispute. We still have two people needing a divorce. So, next comes the divorce case and it proceeds as contentiously as you can imagine until it reaches the point where trial is ordered and scheduled. This case was before the modern era matrimonial rules and dedicated matrimonial judges and safeguards in the law and hoops and hurdles and all the modern day trappings that cause the cost of a divorce to skyrocket. No, the divorce I talk of was back in the wild west days when a divorce moved like a civil case through the normal civil justice system (‘Civil’ is a misnomer; even today, in context of litigation but the law constantly lies to itself).
Last week, I was in a hearing in a local professional school where a student had been thrown of out of school for arguing with an administrator and using the word “bullshit” in that argument. Apparently, the word “bullshit” is considered to be “unprofessional” in that industry. During a break in the heated cross examination of a witness, the hearing panel asked me a question – even though I was not on trial but was the lawyer for the student. A hearing panelist asked me if in my profession, use of the word “bullshit” in court would be considered unprofessional. After the arguments by everybody in the room that I shouldn’t have to answer questions, I insisted. Any trial lawyer can tell you that the word “bullshit” would be unprofessional because it lacks any real teeth. “Fuck you asshole” is much more effective although not quite as insulting as “my learned colleague” or “with all due respect”. I told them about how “fuck” is a common word nowadays in trials and how many times I have almost gotten into fistfights with lawyers and cops and how sometimes in the heat of the moment, even the most respected and professional among us loses our cool. When we get called on it, it is called “contempt of court”, and can usually be cleaned up with an apology and a recess.
What I did tell them, was that I have met a lot of judges over the years. I have seen some really weird shit and decision making come from the bench. Without hesitation, I told the panelists that if a judge was sitting on a bench and was behaving as offensively and wrongly as was the administrator in the student’s case, that I wouldn’t be the only lawyer yelling “bullshit” in the courtroom. (That decision is still pending as of this writing).
Meanwhile, back to the future ….
“Bullshit” was the first word uttered from my mouth when the divorce trial was hijacked. By hijacked, I mean someone who was at the time a judge who did not normally try cases but mostly sat around and barked orders to other judges, came off his ivory perch and insisted on taking this otherwise mundane and routine divorce case. There was an explosion in court when judges were substituted at the last minute and I was facing a judge I did not trust.
As I said above, over the course of a career, all lawyers deal with some real strange happenings from the bench. We may piss whine and moan and at the idiocy of the decision but we can usually find some kind of reasoning applied by the judge that on some level rationally relates the facts to the outcome. Disagree though we might, we lawyers take our licks and move on. But every lawyer also knows when they judge has done them or their client “dirty”. We know when judges have cheated. We know when there is corruption afoot. Though we may not be able to prove it, it you have been around a while, you know the difference between someone who is wrong and someone who is cheating.
One of the only two judges I have ever crossed swords with who I am convinced is corrupt and a cheater was sitting there at the divorce trial. I got along with this judge so other than the surprise last minute substitution, I figured I could handle the case like any other.
The fundamental issue, since there was no money or assets of the short term marriage, was the question of custody. Father’s case was built upon his own stability, extended family, and the attempt by mother to alienate father through a false allegation of sexual abuse. Father had the findings and decision of the Family Court to back his claim. The issue was closed and resolved.
Or so we thought. The first thing the judge announced is that he was going to hear the abuse allegation de novo. In English, that meant the divorce judge was going to re-hear and re-decide the question of whether the father sexually abused the child. That was the second time I used the word “bullshit” on the record in that case.
Mom goes first. She testifies and her expert from the previous trial testifies. That is all the testimony taken on the first day. Mom has not rested. Father has not even called a witness. At the close of the day’s testimony, the judge suddenly issues a proclamation from the Bench. He declares that, based on the same evidence shown in family court, he is convinced that the child is a victim of sex abuse, that the father is likely to be a predator, that all visitation immediately was suspended, and that the matter was to be referred to the District Attorney’s office.
That night was a long night. I don’t know how I got through it but I do remember that the next morning, I was armed with a five page written statement that I read into the record as calmly and peacefully as I could nicely asking the judge to recuse himself for bias. The judge listened nicely and then said ‘nope’. Because the case had been referred to prosecutors, I also invoked the father’s fifth amendment rights which of course, the court used against him in the divorce case.
The rest of the story you can guess. Mom gets sole custody. Father is barred from having any contact with his daughter. Families are ripped apart, hearts are broken, and I bear witness to how people self-destructed thereafter. Parents died believing their son was a pedophile who molested his own daughter. A family ripped itself apart not knowing how to deal with the pain. There was divorce, estrangement, and pain until I lost contact with them in late 2001.
As in every case, my life went on to other battles and disasters. In 2003, a young lady approached me at the Fair when I was working there and introduced herself as being the child from the custody case. The only words I would dare muster to her were that, “your father loves you and would never hurt you.” I then walked away.
Last week, the mother sent me a friend request on Facebook. Me. She had worked for a lawyer I despise. She knows I didn’t like her personally. She knows that I know that she lied and cheated and hurt an otherwise innocent man. But she sent me a friend request.
I am not a person to carry grudges. Even at its most corrupt, I am not unmindful that what happens in courts or cases is just business. It is not personal. I don’t take it personal. At the same time, I do not forget when people cheat. What that mother, her lawyer, and the judge did back in the late 90’s was an unforgiveable sin. I am not angry. “Sadness” would be a more appropriate word given how the system abused and ripped apart the lives of more than a dozen people.
But I want nothing to do with this woman. Under no set of circumstances do I want to be her “friend”; on Facebook or anywhere else. So, I was short but curt saying, “are you serious? your sin against XXXX and the harm caused to your daughter is unforgiveable. Kindly leave me be in peace.” Her response was obviously to deny it. To which I responded, “save that for the courtroom. you and I both know you were lying and it was all a concocted plan to steal custody and alienate a father from his daughter.” I then blocked her and ended it.
Or, so I thought.
Within moments, another message came in via Facebook; this time from the child. It was real and it showed me what a lie told to a 3 year old can do after it has had 15 years to stew. If you spend a lifetime telling a child she was the victim of sex abuse, if you spend a lifetime treating a child for being the victim of sex abuse, and if you paint a world for a child that they were a victim of sex abuse, they will indeed believe they are a victim of sex abuse. It can be so programmed that a child can actually have vivid albeit false memories of having been sexually abused. That child will grow up a self –proclaimed “survivor” of abuse and arrange their lives around the paradigm of life as an abused child.
Remember, the events at issue happened at an age that nobody could ever remember. There was never any evidence of abuse other than the redness typically associated with diaper rash. Then there was the child’s words, “daddy touched me.” I never spoke to this child other than the brief conversation at the Fair ten years ago. Now an adult, the child writes me the following: “don't you dare tell me what i remember, you are a child in a mans body and i clearly have more empathy and common sense than you do. I pray for the people you represent now, and in the future. I was an innocent child and my father to this day hasnt tried to contact me. And I walked in as she was crying reading your messages thats how i know, she did not involve me. I am my own person and she's not even in the room with me as I type this. Stop putting blame on others. You're a poor excuse for a man calling an abuse victim a liar. Actually scratch that, I am a survivor in every sense of the word, and I will never let a small man like you make me feel different. I know what happened, and you never will. My mom will never even know the exact details because she wasnt there. And don't you dare tell me they are more of a family to me than my mother, you don't even know a single thing about my life then and/or now. You're not as smart as you think you are. Do yourself a favor and grow up, you could've easily just blocked my mom earlier instead of stirring all this back up again. Your comments were unnecessary and down right childish. I hope you find peace in that small mind of yours. Congratulations for telling an innocent victim shes a liar, you're really one hell of person. Goodbye.”
When I read those words, I was so overwhelmed with sadness because I was given a rare glimpse on a longitudinal impact of a bad system all those years ago. This child, now an adult, sees herself as a victim, her mother as a victim, as me as being the personification of evil because I too was an eyewitness to the horror. I have known that child since before she was born.
Obviously the father and his family were driven away. They were told that their son/brother/relative had sexually molested a child. Fortunately those were the days before the sex offender registry so the damage was limited and no, there were never any criminal charges brought. But this child never knew her father other than the caricature painted of him by the mother and the court’s decree. It was clear this child had a hard life and was still in a lot pain. I only wish I could make her see that her memories are false and that there is more to the story than she was told. Of course should could always just go get the transcripts from the Family Court trial and read for herself. I doubt she ever will and will herself raise a family where the tale will be one of being a survivor of sex abuse. The child will die thinking her father did the unthinkable. To me, to see this life wasted is so heartbreaking.
No, I did not respond to her. What could I say? I have just sat on this and let it fester inside me for a week now. I needed to talk about it and well, this is my venue.
I am the child of divorce and a victim of parental alienation. My parents divorced when I was six years old and my father didn’t want to pay child support and my mother wouldn’t let him see me and always talked shit about him. I didn’t meet him again until I was 16 and then not again until I was in my 20’s. We never were able to re-establish a relationship. I could never bring myself to use the word “dad” in reference to him; let alone call him by that honorary title. He died with his son left with a million questions and not a single answer. His son was not allowed to be told where his grave is located.
My eldest daughter was ripped out of my arms as a young child as my first marriage was ending. Her mother then set about on a successful course of conduct designed to alienate her from her father. Now age 30 and despite my best efforts, I doubt that the distance between us will ever be bridged. I try every day but the chasm may be too great to overcome.
For more than 20 years I have been a lawyer and in divorce or Family Court cases, I have had to smack the occasional client on the head for letting their anger today destroy the future lives of innocents. People need to understand that decisions they make today can completely alter the course of an innocent life.
Childhood is a brief transitory phase of a human’s life. What I can assure you from a lifetime of personal and professional experience is that wounds and scars inflicted during childhood can last a lifetime.