PBS Film Controversy Continues

The Public Broadcasting Service documentary "Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories" portrayed Sadiya (Sadia) Alilire as a heroic mom who was abused by her husband. Two controversial questions persist. Did producers ignore the extensive court records with which they were provided on Alilire’s multiple abuse of her two daughters — then aged 8 and 3?

Is PBS demonstrating bias against fathers? The tension surrounding these questions is heightening. On Nov. 7, Dr. Scott Loeliger (the accused father) wrote to Pat Mitchell, President and CEO of PBS, to "demand that you immediately cease and desist from rebroadcasting all programs and advertisements relating to "Breaking the Silence." Loeliger’s reason: "the numerous false and defamatory statements about me." On Nov. 11, PBS’ Vice President of Communications Lea Sloan replied that the matter "is currently being reviewed by our legal department." PBS Director of Corporate Communications Jan McNamara had confirmed earlier that the accuracy of "Breaking the Silence" was under an "official review"; PBS stated it anticipated its review would be concluded within 30 days as of Nov. 8.

Meanwhile newspaper columnist Glenn Sacks announced "Round Three" of a campaign to convince publicly funded PBS to air both sides of issues raised by "Breaking the Silence." According to Sacks, Round Two resulted in over 10,000 protest calls and emails from the "Sackson Hordes" to PBS. Round Three is aimed at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees the funding of public television. "We want PBS to provide fatherhood and shared parenting advocates a meaningful opportunity to present our side," said Sacks, explaining the campaign’s goal. So far, PBS Houston has responded with an even-handed round-table discussion on its news analysis show, The Connection. The blogosphere is also buzzing. Liberal feminist Trish Wilson has posted the accounts of both Alilire and her daughter Fatima, the child whom "Breaking the Silence" features. Both sides should be heard — and giving children a voice is particularly commendable — but Wilson contends that attacks on Alilire are based on "outdated court documents." This charge is an odd one. If Alilire was, in fact, found liable for multiple counts of child abuse on Aug. 19, 1998, then — unless the court finding has been overturned — it is neither outdated nor up-to-date. The finding simply is, although additional information may provide some insight.

Perhaps in response to accusations, Sacks recently posted the formerly withheld smoking gun: the judgment on Case No. 97-048856 of the Superior Court of California, County of Tulare, Juvenile Court. In that judgment, Fatima and her younger sister became dependents of the juvenile court under Section 300, subdivisions a, b, c & j, of the Welfare and Institutions Code. The codes require a finding either of actual abuse (physical and emotional) and neglect, or of the risk of abuse and neglect. Alilire claims the court actually found that she "threw a shoe at Fatima" and "spanked her with a plastic coat hanger." She denies both charges. There is an undeniable "he said/she said" aspect to the potential scandal that threatens the credibility of PBS. But the "he said/she said" scenario breaks down in the presence of documents that include far more than the Juvenile Court papers. It includes the rulings of two judges on separate occasions, 1991 and 2003; the report of a child abuse investigator for Tehama County; the arrest of Alilire in 1989 for felony domestic violence against Loeliger; and, the custody evaluation conducted by a clinical psychologist for the Superior Court of Monterey County. If Fatima’s voice is to be heeded — and I sincerely hope it is — then her earlier accounts must also be taken seriously, especially since they were independently investigated and verified.

In the furor of accusations and counterclaims that may well occur, and soon, it is wise to state what I believe the controversy is not about. It is not about whether Loeliger is a good father. I don’t have information to make that judgment but I suspect both parties behaved badly toward Fatima at different points. It is not about Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), upon which much attention has been focused. The syndrome, by which custodial parents are said to systematically alienate children from non-custodial ones (overwhelmingly fathers), is heralded by shared custody advocates; it was targeted for debunking by "Breaking the Silence."

I don’t subscribe to PAS as a psychiatric category. So what is the controversy about? Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young, who also covered the film on her blog, got it right. "It looks to me like the PBS documentary has taken a very complicated and messy situation in which both parents are at fault (though the mother is the only one with a fairly clear record of physical violence), and transformed it into a melodrama about a villainous father and a wronged mother," she said. "And this melodrama is put into the service of a narrative that vilifies fathers, most explosively suggesting that the majority of fathers who seek custody of their children are abusers. And that’s just wrong." I believe the producers of "Breaking the Silence" made an egregious error in casting a physically abusive mother as a wronged heroine. "Breaking the Silence" may well contribute to misinformation on domestic violence and its impact upon children. And that is shameful.

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