by Amy Neustein, Ph.D.,
in The Jewish Press, January 6, 2005
"Can a woman forget her child?" Those words of the prophet Isaiah have haunted me for almost 20 years. In 1986, I lost my six-year-old daughter to a malfunctioning family court system that punished me for trying to protect my daughter from abuse. Next month, I will be delivering a keynote address to the “Battered Mothers Custody Conference” at Siena College near Albany, New York. The distinguished speakers will include New York Administrative Justice Jacqueline Silbermann and former family court judge, and New York State legislator Karen Burstein. All through the conference, I will be thinking of my daughter, Sherry.
This remarkable three-day event (January 7-9) is the brainchild of Siena psychology professor Mo Therese Hannah, an advocate for abused women and children, with whom I have had the privilege of working for the past year. Mo is a Catholic and I am an Orthodox Jew. What brought us together was a common family court experience — and a determination to protect other mothers from the judicial cruelty I suffered.
Almost two decades ago, I became a “childless” mother — a mother whose connection with her biological child was completely severed by a court. I didn’t abuse my then six-year-old daughter, nor did I deny her love, attention, food or medical care. On the contrary, I loved Sherry with all my heart and soul. I tried to protect her, believing her when she reported being abused by her father. I was punished because the family court didn’t want to listen to her.
The court took my daughter from me on the fourth day of Succot, 1986, never to return home. For almost a year after that, I couldn’t accept the loss. In the middle of the night, I would wake up and instinctively walk to the bed in my daughter’s room, thinking she would be there. Sometimes I even thought I heard her voice in the house, and that everything would be normal again. I thought if I tried hard enough, I would hear the familiar sounds of her laughing, singing and playing — that she would be back with me.
I yearned to hold my daughter in my lap, to sing to her, to put her to bed, the way I had night after night, when I would sit beside her and she would recite K’rias Sh’ma. But each time I was pulled up against the cold reality that she was gone. I could not see or touch her: I was denied the pleasure of attending a school play, a graduation ceremony, even her Bas Mitzvah.
I think I might have given way had I not retained the Orthodox Jewish faith in which I was raised. I refused to resign myself to the role of childless mother. I fought to get my daughter back, and when I failed in the courts, I went on national television, reaching out to mothers across America. Every year, shortly after the mourning of Tisha b’Av, I would hear Isaiah’s words read aloud in shul: "Hatishkach isha ula, meracheim ben bitnah?" (Can a woman forget her nursling child? Can she withhold her caring for the child of her womb?) Those words engraved themselves into my memory. I knew that no woman who lost her child to the courts could ever forget her, and that G-d would never forget, either. I knew with every fiber of my being that I could never give up the struggle. Something had to be done to make the madness stop.
I am a sociologist, and as I continued my own struggle, I learned that I was not alone — that an epidemic of childless mothers — mothers made childless by decrees of the family courts — has swept across America. After I told my story on television, first dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of other mothers began to call, tearfully or furiously describing how they had been shut out of the lives of their children for trying to protect them from abuse.
I decided to chronicle and study the human tragedy of which I was now a part. I gathered data ceaselessly, collecting case files from mothers across the country. I moved back to my parents’ home in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, where I set up a round- the-clock counseling center for mothers who were losing their children to the courts.
My dear mother (aleha hashalom) was as devoted to counseling mothers as I was, often talking with them late into the night. In fact, as other people joined me in providing counseling, many of the most desperate calls were routinely routed to my mother, who was soon known to suffering mothers throughout the country as “Grandma Shirley.” They never knew that they were being counseled by a rabbi’s wife.
Over the years, I have continued to turn my pain into productive work. I have published critical commentaries on the family courts in academic journals. I have been invited to speak at the National Institute of Justice, the Albany Medical College Department of Pediatrics, and the Jane Addams College of Social Work.
Most recently, with Michael Lesher — a writer and lawyer who is also a ba’al t’shuvah — I conceived the idea of a book detailing the family courts’ backlash against mothers who try to protect their children from abuse they believe is being perpetrated by the other parent. Our work has taken two years to complete, but it will be published this spring as the lead title of the University Press of New England, a consortium of university presses including Brandeis, Tufts, Northeastern, and Dartmouth. It is as the co- author of this book that I have been invited to speak at the Battered Mothers Custody Conference.
From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running from the Family Courts — and What Can Be Done about It is an expose of the family courts’ treatment of mothers and children in litigation involving suspicions of abuse by fathers. Professor Hannah has called this book, “a groundbreaking new book that is perhaps the most highly readable scholarly work I’ve encountered in my 14 years in academia. The very first to provide the historical and contextual chronology of this system’s steady decline into chaos and corruption over the past two decades.”
The removal of a child from a mother leaves a breach that never heals. Childless mothers cannot recapture the years that were taken from them. But when we begin to acknowledge the damage that has been done, and to change the institutions that have caused it, we can begin to heal our world. The world cannot and will not be made whole until the courts respect the sacredness of the mother/child bond — the very cornerstone of Jewish life.
Amy Neustein •
Childless Mother •
Woman of Valor
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