Witness

A blog about forensic psychology

New documentary targets family court abuses

"No Way Out But One" features internationally known case of Holly Collins

The Documentary Channel is premiering No Way Out But One, depicting injustices against abused women and children in U.S. family courts. Of potential interest to blog readers, the film critiques the role of child custody evaluators as usurping the authority of fact finders by substituting their own judgments for the facts.

No Way Out highlights the internationally known case of Holly Collins, who fled with her son Zachary and daughter Jennifer in 1994 after her husband was granted sole custody by a court in Minnesota. According to the film, the judge ignored evidence of domestic violence and child abuse, including a skull fracture to the boy. After a circuitous flight through Canada and Guatemala, Collins eventually won asylum in the Netherlands. By the time the FBI caught up with the family, the children were adults. In the film, they convincingly describe chronic abuse at the hands of their father. Holly's dynamic daughter, Jennifer, the inspiration for the film, is executive director of Courageous Kids, which empowers children to go public about family court abuse (her blog is HERE).

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The Collins's long-running custody battle featured allegations of Parental Alienation Syndrome, a controversial syndrome in which one parent (most often the mother) is accused of alienating the children from the other parent. Collins was also labeled with another highly contentious diagnosis, Munchausen by Proxy, after she sought medical treatment for her children, whom she says were being injured by their father’s abuse and neglect.

Due in part to Collins's supposed attempts to alienate the children, the father was granted full custody in 1993, and Collins was initially denied even phone or mail contact. Eventually, she was granted supervised visitation, but neither she nor her children were allowed to talk about the father’s abuse. In the film, Collins describes how she and the children secretly exchanged notes by placing them in the refrigerator; in the notes, the children begged for help and she finally promised to rescue them.

Jennifer and Zachary Collins, now adults
Collins became the first American ever granted asylum by the Netherlands. She ultimately married a Dutch man and had four more children. After the FBI located her, she returned to the United States in an effort to vindicate herself. Ultimately, the kidnapping charge was dismissed; she pled guilty to one count of contempt of court in exchange for a sentence of 40 hours of community service.

According to the film, Collins is just one of thousands of mothers forced to go on the run in order to protect their children from abusive husbands who have been granted custody of their children.

Ironically, the film's debut on the Documentary Channel coincides with the publication of a similar story by another woman who is also named Collins. Frances Collins's book, Seashell Prisoners, chronicles her flight from Texas to the Honduras to protect her 3-year-old granddaughter. Her eight-year odyssey ultimately ended in arrest and incarceration.

The film is stoking up antipathy between the battered women's and father's rights camps, with the latter expending significant effort in to debunk the claims of Collins and her children that they were subjected to family violence.

Award-winning filmmaker Garland Waller told a Huffington Post columnist that she chose the Holly Collins case "because I believed her story would break through the barricade set up by the mainstream press." The film expands on last year’s award-winning short, Small Justice, produced on a shoestring by Waller, a communications professor at Boston University, and her husband Barry Nolan, a TV writer and reporter.

In the Huffington Post interview, Waller went on to say that what most surprised her in her involvement with this project was the dumbfounded reaction of members of the general public:

"They just can't believe that … family courts would give custody -- time and time again -- to abusers. But I suppose I really shouldn't be surprised. In both the tragedy of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and the Jerry Sandusky thing, ‘good’ people turned a blind eye to the abuse of children. It's the same thing in family courts. It is just heart-breaking that so often when terrified children summon the courage to speak up and tell what is happening to them, even though the abuser has warned them of the terrible consequences if they ever talk... even though we teach children to speak up and to tell the truth...when they speak up against this one awful thing, we just don't listen."

I don’t see any more upcoming airings on the Documentary Channel, but the DVD will be going on sale soon, from Passion River Films.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

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