Protest PBS’ Father-Bashing Breaking the Silence

Oct. 18, 2005–Dec. 20, 2005


PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting received over 10,000 calls and letters from our supporters. The National Organization for Women declared a counter-campaign against us, but PBS ombudsman Michael Getler publicly reported that our supporters outnumbered NOW’s by a ratio of seven to one.

PBS agreed to commission a new film which would provide a balanced perspective on child custody issues, and they followed through on this committment.

Moreover, Breaking the Silence’s producers were forced to publicly apologize to a father who it had defamed in the film, and to alter future copies of the film accordingly.

PBS’ Father-Bashing Breaking the Silence is a direct assault on fatherhood. The film, which aired on numerous PBS stations, portrays fathers as batterers and child molesters who steal children from their mothers. The film’s producers aim to reverse the hard-won gains shared parenting advocates have made in protecting children’s right to have both parents in their lives after divorce or separation. The film is extremely one-sided, and presents a harmful and inaccurate view of divorce and child custody cases.

In addition, court findings, records and testimony show that Sadia Loeliger—portrayed as a heroic mom in the film—harmed and abused children under her care.

Working principally with Fathers and Families and the American Coalition for Fathers & Children, over 10,000 of our supporters called or wrote PBS to demand that they ’provide fatherhood and shared parenting advocates a meaningful opportunity to present our side of the issues discussed in the film.

Why This Campaign

Parental Alienation describes the painful phenomenon of a parent turning his or her children against the other parent after divorce or separation. In the PBS documentary Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories, the filmmakers assert that Parental Alienation "has been used in countless cases by abusive fathers to gain custody of their children" by accusing the mothers of alienating their children.

I’ve investigated many of these cases and have found the filmmakers and their supporters claims about them to be very inaccurate. I’ve detailed several of these investigations, including the Sadia Loeliger case, the Genia Shockome case, and the Holly Collins case.

Despite the film’s claims, research shows that Parental Alienation is a common facet of divorce or separation. For example, a longitudinal study conducted by Stanley S. Clawar and Brynne Valerie Rivlin and published by the American Bar Association in 2003 followed 700 "high conflict" divorce cases over a 12-year-period. Clawar and Rivlin found that elements of Parental Alienation were present in the vast majority of the cases studied.

The film promotes an agenda harmful to children and their parents. This agenda denies the prevalence, severity, and even the mere existence of Parental Alienation in divorce and child custody cases, and urges courts to uncritically rubberstamp claims of abuse.

We want courts to recognize Parental Alienation when it occurs and combat it, and to also be aware of the possibility of false accusations of Parental Alienation, which certainly do happen. When claims of abuse are made, we want courts to carefully weigh the evidence in order to protect the abused and punish the guilty, while at the same time being careful to prevent innocent people from being harmed by false accusations.

PBS Forced to Produce New Film

In December, 2005 PBS notified our campaign that they would "commission an hour-long documentary" for the purpose of further examining the "complex and important issues" raised in the film and by our campaign. They promised the "hour-long treatment of the subject will allow ample opportunity" for those of differing views to "have their perspectives shared, challenged and debated."

Kids & Divorce: For Better or Worse, the film they commissioned in response to our campaign, aired in several dozen markets the following year. To PBS’s credit, they followed through on the commitment they made to produce a balanced film.

Moreover, PBS partially adopted the approach we suggested for the film. Earlier this year Dr. Ned Holstein, Board Chairman of Fathers and Families, wrote to Dave Iverson, the film’s producer and host, and suggested that he make shared parenting the central theme of the new PBS film. We are pleased to see that Iverson took the suggestion seriously—much of Kids & Divorce concerns shared parenting.

Critique of PBS’ Kids & Divorce: For Better or Worse

The film made two overriding points. Much of the mainstream media engages in divorce happy talk. However, from Kids & Divorce’s opening moments the film powerfully depicts the way children suffer in divorce. Also, throughout the film it was clear that children want and need both parents, that they are very aggrieved when their parents don’t get along, and that two-parent involvement is important after divorce.

The film also had its weaknesses. The film devoted much time to the ways in which conflict between parents is bad for children, but did not devote enough to why such conflicts exist. My belief is that much post-divorce conflict is because the playing field is not level, and mothers believe, often correctly, that if they push hard they can drive fathers out of their children’s lives. The film focused too much on "can’t we all just get along" generalities instead of on the need to protect both parents’ right to have a relationship with their children.

Judicial discretion in divorce cases was defended in the film without pointing out the harm that excessive discretion can create. Shared Parenting was criticized as a "cookie cutter" or "one size fits all solution." However, Ned Holstein, president of Fathers & Families, refuted this in the film, pointing out that we already have a cookie cutter—sole custody to mom, dad gets every other weekend visitation.

Women’s advocate Dr. Peter Jaffe said that Shared Parenting "coerces" women into co-parenting arrangements with their abusers. Psychologist Dr. Richard Warshak, who made several excellent points in the film, pointed out that Shared Parenting presumptions do not apply when there is domestic violence. However, nobody pointed out that the presumption of sole custody to mom coerces fathers to relinquish much of their fatherhood after a divorce.

The film also devoted much time to divorce education and collaborative law, particularly in the first half. Both of these can be good things, but their utility is limited without a level playing field.

However, I do not want to belabor the film’s negatives. PBS spent a considerable amount of money on the film, and made an honest and effective effort to be balanced. The film had many positives, particularly in the second half. Some of them include:

  • The film provided a detailed and very positive depiction of a divorced couple practicing Shared Parenting, including an interview with the divorced couple’s 16 year-old son and 12 year-old daughter. The boy emphasized the importance of having the love of both his parents.

  • The film made it clear that kids do not like seeing their other parent badmouthed or belittled. Three times the film quoted a young boy who thanked his mom for ceasing her badmouthing of the boy’s father.

  • The film pointed out that it’s important that each parent accommodate their children’s desire for contact with the other parent. For example, we were told that when a child tells his or her mother that he or she misses dad, the mother’s best response is a cheerful "OK, let’s call him."

  • Los Angeles County Family Mediator Ernest Sanchez applauded a father who came into his court and stood up and repeatedly asserted that he was a father, "not a visitor" in his child’s life. Sanchez also brought up the need to "equalize the playing field."

  • I expected a large focus on domestic violence and monster dads, and was pleasantly surprised to see that while this side was represented fairly, it was not given undue weight. In fact, Iverson said "domestic violence is a factor in only a small number of divorce cases," and this assertion was repeated later in the film.

  • In the final segments Dr. Richard Warshak was excellent, bringing home many of our movement’s key points. He discussed the way custodial parents "use their extra time with their children" to turn them against or alienate them from the other parent. Warshak agreed with Jaffe that we must protect kids from domestic violence but also said we must protect them from the "emotional violence" of parental alienation. Surprisingly, Jaffe did (briefly) concede that there is too much alienating behavior by parents in divorces.

  • Underscoring the film’s central message that kids need two parents, not two warring parties, one child caught in the middle of a divorce said "I don’t want to vote."

  • The film showed a meeting of Fathers & Families where two dads briefly described how painful their separations from their children are.

  • The film showed Ned Holstein lobbying at the Massachusetts capital and quoted him as saying that before you even get into the courtroom, you can tell which parent is going to win custody—"it’s the parent wearing the skirt."

  • In the film Iowa state legislator Danny Carroll said something we hear all too rarely. Carroll never knew his father. However, he did not make the standard assumption that because dad wasn’t there he must be at fault or have "abandoned" the family. Instead he explained that he didn’t really know why his dad wasn’t there, and speculated that if there had been a presumption for Shared Parenting when he was a child, perhaps he would have had his father in his life. He is one of the main legislative supporters of the Iowa shared parenting law, which the film discussed.

  • Our opponents often say that divorced couples can’t co-parent, so it’s best to give sole custody to mothers. In the film Dr. Isolina Ricci asserted that "most parents can co-parent" and emphasized the importance of co-parenting after a divorce.

  • In closing, Hofstra Law Professor Andrew Schepard accurately described the problems in divorce and family law as a "public health problem," and Warshak emphasized the need for post-divorce parenting plans which do not have a "secondary parent."

In summation, we’ve come a long way in a year. We never asked PBS to pull or cease airing Breaking the Silence. Instead we asserted that there is another side to these issues which merits an airing. We succeeded. Last fall on PBS dads were portrayed as evil, scheming abusers. This week dads were portrayed as an important and valued part of their children’s lives. Thanks again to all who participated.

Producers Forced to Apologize

PBS Portrayed Known Child Abuser as Hero; Producers Forced to Apologize, Agree to Alter Film

Connecticut Public Television and Tatge–Lasseur Productions, co–producers of PBS’s anti–father film Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories, have been forced to publicly apologize to Dr. Scott Loeliger for the film’s defamatory portrayal of the family court case involving himself, his daughter Fatima and his ex–wife Sadia.

Sadia Loeliger, one of the central characters in Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories, was portrayed by the filmmakers as a heroic mom who had lost custody of her daughter to an abusive ex–husband. Soon after the film aired we publicly revealed extensive documentation showing that Sadia Loeliger had, in fact, lost custody of her daughter because a Tulare County Juvenile Court concluded she had committed multiple acts of child abuse.

Long before Breaking the Silence aired, Dr. Scott Loeliger had informed Dominique Lasseur and CPTV of the Juvenile Court decision, provided ample documentation of the Court’s findings of abuse, told them he did not want his daughter to be a part of their circus, and warned them of legal action. In what could only be construed as boundless arrogance, Lasseur and CPTV brushed off Loeliger, despite repeated warnings.

Loeliger pursued legal action, and Lasseur and CPTV have now been forced to publicly apologize. In the letter of apology from Tatge–Lasseur Productions and Connecticut Public Broadcasting, Inc., they write:

"Prior to the distribution of the film, Dr. Loeliger advised us that he strongly disputed the version of events related by his daughter and former wife in the film. He also contended that his former wife was herself abusive toward their daughter. Finally, Dr. Loeliger expressed his concern that the film would cause damage to his daughter…

"Dr. Loeliger has continued to raise concerns about the film, contending among other issues that viewers would understand his family members to be accusing him of physically abusing his daughter, and that distribution of the film continues to cause damage to his daughter.

"It was never our intent to accuse Dr. Loeliger of physically abusing his daughter or to create harm to his daughter. Although we believe that most viewers understand this, we sincerely regret if some viewers drew an inference from the film that we did not intend and do not endorse."

The full letter can be read here.

Tatge–Lasseur Productions and Connecticut Public Broadcasting, Inc. have also been forced to agree to alter all future copies of Breaking the Silence.The agreement reads:

"In consideration of this Agreement and the terms and conditions thereof, CPTV and Tatge–Lasseur agree that, with respect to all future distribution of the film by them in whatever form, they will obscure the faces of Loeliger’s daughter and ex–wife such that viewers will not be able to recognize them."

Evidence that Sadia Loeliger abused her children is voluminous, and includes:

  • Doris Nava Arellano, Sadia’s babysitter for 18 months, testified that "every child in the house is afraid" of Sadia and that Fatima’s cousin "Sara [who lived with them] actually has scars on the back of her legs and on the left side of her head from Ms. Ali–Loeliger’s attacks on her."

  • Sara, then aged 15, penned a desperate letter detailing the abuse she suffered at Sadia’s hands, writing "she hits in front of anyone anywhere with anything. I fear for my life sometimes. Just recently she hit me in the head."

Numerous mental health, judicial and investigative authorities portrayed Sadia as violent and abusive towards the children under her care, including:

The full list of documents in the case—including Sadia Loeliger’s response—are listed below:

To read Sadia Loeliger’s response, please see Sadia Loeliger Strikes Back--and Strikes Out: Sadia’s Responses Refuted. Also, please see Sadia Loeliger’s Side of the Story.

Media Coverage

Our campaign was covered by hundreds of media outlets. These include:

Numerous opinion columnists, including:

  • Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, whose column appears in over 300 newspapers
  • Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young
  • Fox News columnist Wendy McElroy
  • Syndicated columnist Phyllis Schlafly, whose column appears in more than 100 newspapers

Many radio shows, including:

  • NPR’s Justice Talking
  • The nationally-syndicated Dennis Prager Show
  • PBS’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer
  • The nationally-syndicated Larry Elder Show
  • The nationally-syndicated Michael Reagan Show
  • NPR’s CrossTalk

Hundreds of newspapers and magazines, including:

  • Chicago Sun Times
  • Reason Magazine
  • Boston Globe
  • Hartford Courant
  • The San Francisco Daily Journal
  • Agape Press
  • Current
  • World Net Daily
  • The Sacramento News & Review
  • The Albany Times-Union
  • The Norfolk Virginian Pilot
  • The Los Angeles Daily Journal

Numerous TV and radio stations, including:

  • KFAX AM 1100 in San Francisco
  • ABC affiliate WTNH in New Haven
  • WLW AM 700 in Cincinnati
  • WOSU-TV in Columbus
  • KUHT-TV in Houston
  • WVIA-TV in Scranton
  • American Family Radio

Opinion columns dealing specifically with our campaign included:

Special Thanks

It would be impossible to thank everyone who played a role in our successful campaign against Breaking the Silence, but noteworthy contributors included:

We also thank PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler and Corporation for Public Broadcasting Ombudsman Ken A. Bode for their sympathetic and fair commentary on our campaign and the issues we raised. To learn more, see PBS Ombusdsman Publishes Letters on Breaking the Silence and CPB Ombudsman 'Welcomes' PBS's Agreement to Make New Film.