Ruling in High-Profile Marks Custody Case: Painful but Correct

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

Perhaps in no case in recent memory has widespread media sympathy been more misplaced than in the Bridget Marks child custody case. Marks, who lost custody of her twin four-year-old daughters to her ex-boyfriend, has successfully taken her side of the story to the public via appearances on Larry King Live, PrimeTime Live, The O’Reilly Factor, Dr. Phil and others

Granted, at first glance, the Marks ruling doesn’t seem right. The girls, who have been cared for by their mother and were sired during an adulterous liaison with casino mogul John Aylsworth, will now be raised by their father and his wife.

The controversial Manhattan, New York family court ruling runs counter to many standard practices of modern American family law. For one, courts lean heavily toward preserving existing caregiving arrangements by awarding custody of children to the children’s primary caregiver. Also, courts generally award primary custody of children to mothers over fathers, even when caregiving duties were divided equally during the marriage. And when accusations of child abuse or domestic violence are made, most judges prefer to "err on the side of caution" by siding against those accused.

However, in this case, Family Court Judge Arlene Goldberg made the correct decision. Marks alleged that Aylsworth had sexually abused both daughters during a supervised visitation. The neutral experts appointed by the court concluded that Marks’ allegations were false, and that Marks had coached the girls to make statements corroborating her charges. All three experts recommended to the court that custody be awarded to the father.

Research establishes that children who are coached into believing they have been sexually abused often suffer damaging, long-term consequences. According to researchers Julia A. Hickman, Ph.D., and Cecil R. Reynolds, Ph.D., such children experience "many or all of the negative side effects of children who actually have been sexually abused and in many cases the effects may be more severe than occur in some forms of true sexual assault." These effects include severe depression and suicidal tendencies, disturbances in psychosexual development, and a "significantly increased risk of becoming victims [of sexual assault] as adults if female and aggressors or perpetrators if male." Goldberg acted correctly in moving to protect the girls from these pathologies.

Despite this, Marks has successfully portrayed herself as the victim of an unscrupulous, wealthy playboy and a corrupt family law system. But Marks is no victim. Aylsworth never sought custody until Marks made the explosive allegations, and it is inconceivable that without it Marks would have lost custody of her children. She would have had her girls, the court-ordered $4,200 a month tax free in child support, and all parental authority over the twins. The only obligation required of her was a reasonable and appropriate one–to allow her girls to visit their father and have a relationship with him. Yet the court found that Marks had so much "unbridled anger" towards Aylsworth, apparently for not divorcing his wife of 34 years and marrying her, that she did not and could not allow this relationship, and was thus incapable of acting in the best interests of her children.

For too long many family courts have been kangaroo courts in which perjury and false allegations are not only tolerated but are frequently rewarded. According to a study conducted by Douglas J. Besharov and Lisa A. Laumann and published in Social Science and Modern Society, the vast majority of accusations of child sexual abuse made during custody battles are false, unfounded or unsubstantiated. Yet spurious allegations often devastate fathers and children by allowing mothers to drive fathers out of their children’s lives. Goldberg’s ruling sends a clear message that such behavior runs deeply contrary to the best interests of children, and that courts can and should act decisively to combat it.

While Aylsworth has been vilified by Marks in the media, the evidence is clear that, despite having an adulterous liaison, he is a capable, loving father. His four adult children and his wife all gave the court glowing reports of him as a father, and, according to Goldberg, "all persons who have seen him interact with the twins testified that he is a very good parent and that the twins love him and are happy with him."

Critics of Goldberg and Aylsworth are correct to be concerned about the pain suffered by the twin girls throughout this case. But Goldberg and Aylsworth are not the cause of that pain. Bridget Marks is.