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Wife of Outspoken Dead Judge Weighs in on Depressing Saga of Woody Allen, and Mia and Dylan Farrow

It is hard to say which among Dylan Farrow’s experiences are the most heart-wrenching.
 
 
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As an attorney with over three decades of experience advocating for women and children whose lives have been blighted, some by domestic violence and some by childhood sexual abuse, and as the widow of Elliott Wilk, the judge in the Allen v. Farrow custody case, my interest in Dylan Farrow’s recent disclosures of sexual abuse by Woody Allen is both professional and personal.

Because of Allen’s celebrity, I fear that his deceptive words of denial will reverberate in a way that further silences mothers of child abuse victims, as well as adult survivors, who would otherwise seek justice in our courts. This is one of the reasons his reliance on a flawed forensic report and the testimony of other mental health practitioners, lacking expertise about sexual abuse, is so troubling.

The role of mental health evidence in cases of domestic violence and child sexual abuse has evolved over the last 35 years. Back then, medical and social science research about these atrocities was still in a state of relative infancy. “Domestic violence” was still called “wife beating,” and like cancer, was rarely spoken about in public. Many psychiatrists, trained in the orthodoxies of that profession in those times, viewed its victims as mentally ill masochists. Discussion of child sexual abuse was even more taboo, particularly incest.

Representing a mother whose child was sexually abused by an intimate partner has always been difficult. Allen’s attack on the credibility of Mia Farrow, which was specifically determined to be without basis at trial, is now renewed, again echoing the misogynistic voices in American law that trivialize violence against women and children. This places the mothers of abused children in the untenable position of being savaged as vengeful women, lashing out against the men who have “spurned” them, or being charged with being neglectful parents who have failed to protect their children.

Many attorneys who represented men accused of child sexual abuse and domestic violence resorted to the primitive view that women are unworthy of belief. In one case counsel argued that because my client, her witnesses, and her attorney were all women, her charge of sexual abuse was the result of deceitful female networking. In another, a lawyer concluded that his client, the subject of a claim of domestic violence, was the victim of a female plot — breastfeeding — designed to keep fathers away from their children.

Some jurists were no better. In one of my early cases, the judge began a trial by sternly admonishing me that he would not limit the father’s access to his daughter unless penetration and injury were proved. To him, sexual abuse could mean nothing short of rape, ignoring the fact that sexual abuse often produces no physical injury.

As physicians, psychotherapists and scholars deepened their study of domestic violence and child sexual abuse, our understanding of these social ills increased. Attorneys for victims began drawing upon experts’ knowledge, which became the basis of testimony presented in legal proceedings, criminal and civil.

In child custody cases, the use of mental health testimony had traditionally been a hired-gun “my check is bigger than yours” duel between experts. Over time, judges began appointing impartial forensic experts in an effort to discourage contests between paid partisans and to enhance the quality of the testimony being offered. These mental health professionals did not treat the parents or children. They interviewed family members, other witnesses, and presented their opinions in court, subject to cross-examination.

Unfortunately, some forensic experts, and treating therapists as well, failed to provide ethical and competent testimony. In one disheartening case, also before my husband, a treating therapist, under oath, concealed knowledge of the father’s acts of domestic violence. In another matter, a forensic expert shockingly admitted on my cross-examination that he had no training in domestic violence, a central issue in the case, and that he had not read the clinical notes of the child’s therapist. These contained the boy’s report of seeing his father push his mother down a flight of stairs.