PBS Film Controversy Continues

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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
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
(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.”

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
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

“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

The blogosphere
is also buzzing. Liberal feminist Trish
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that attacks on Alilire are based on “outdated court documents.”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the court finding has been overturned – it is neither outdated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
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
, 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.

24, 2005

McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

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