No Way Out But One: Custody, Abuse and the Family Courts

Oct 26, 2012 | Updated Dec 26, 2012

No Way Out But One debuts this week on the Documentary Channel and is as much an examination of this country's family court system as it is the very personal story of Holly Collins.

Collins became an international fugitive when she fled the U.S. with her three children after a court granted custody to her ex despite claims of physical abuse. She and her children eventually sought asylum from the government of Netherlands.

The documentary reveals her difficult journey and discusses the highly charged issues of divorce, custody, safety and legal and illegal alternatives when battered women feel they need to take matters into their own hands.

The film is advocacy journalism at its very best, exposing what can happen when men accused of abuse get custody in family courts.

Produced with less than a shoestring budget by Garland Waller, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and professor at Boston University and her husband, Barry Nolan, a well-known broadcast journalist who currently blogs for Boston Magazine, the film is gaining traction and attention as it exposes a significant national story hampered by he said-she said and the difficult and loaded subject of familial abuse.

I recently interviewed Garland Waller about the film:

What drew you to Holly Collins' case?

It's no secret that over the years family courts have been known to give custody to men who beat their wives and children and/or who sexually abuse their children. Up is down. Down is up in family courts. I chose the Holly Collins story because I believed her story would break through the barricade set up by the mainstream press. While it's never a truly happy ending if kids have been abused, Holly's story ends on a note of real hope. The Minnesota court ultimately dropped all the kidnapping charges against her. Her kids are healthy, normal, delightful young people who are confident, credible and convincing when they tell their story. We knew that this was a story that could move people and could hold up to the attacks that we knew would occur. So in a nutshell, the story had a happy ending, it had an ending, the people were appealing and credible, and there was solid evidence. Because the children spoke, it was taken out of the "he said/she said" category which is often used by the media to avoid telling the story.

Why are stories like this so difficult to bring attention to?

You know, when I talk about this in public, when I do screenings with non-domestic violence/child abuse groups, just the general public, I am met with a response that is nothing short of dumbfounded. They just can't believe that child rapists and batterers could get custody so often. Then there is what I like to call "The Yuck Factor." The truth is that there is something so profoundly disgusting about the idea of a father raping his 3-year-old daughter or 2-year-old son, or breaking a child's arm, that we just can't take really process it. We just don't want to on some level.

Typically, when the mainstream media start to cover a story about this, several things happen. One is that while they like the sensational aspect of the story, they are also risk-averse; they don't want to get sued. So, they want "both sides" of the issue. They go to the woman. She wants to tell them everything. They go to the man, he doesn't want to go on TV and say, "I did NOT beat my wife..."

There is also a very mistaken idea that the public and the courts just can't shake, and that is that batterers look creepy and sinister. People tend to think, "I will know a creep like that when I see one." Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Just take a look at the Jerry Sandusky case. Batterers and abusers have figured out that if they just refuse to talk about it to the press, the story will just go away.

And there's another problem that is related: Women who have been battered, and who have discovered that their children have been abused, usually don't present well in court.

One of the things Holly was accused of in court is being "an alienating parent." What is that?

There is a bit of junk science called the Parental Alienation Syndrome. Even though it has been rejected by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association, it is used all the time. It was used in Holly's case and it is used every day in America's family courts to separate loving parents from the children they are trying to protect.

PAS says that if a child makes allegations of physical or sexual abuse in the course of a high-conflict custody dispute, it is probably not true and it's just the child trying to ally himself with one of the parents -- usually the mom. And if the protective parent believes their child and says something bad about the other parent, then that parent is bad and is guilty of Parental Alienation Syndrome. And the only way to fix the problem is to take the child away from the protective parent and give custody to the accused abuser.

Father's rights groups have been particularly vocal about this film. How do you balance their perspective when a story like Holly's comes forward?

Most men are good dads... and some are at least okay dads. And okay is fine. But this is about that relatively small percentage of men who hurt their wives and abuse children and then go after custody.

But still, we have taken a lot of heat from father's rights groups, not groups like NOMAS (National Organization of Men Against Sexism) which is a terrific group, but some of the really gung-ho men need to be the head of the household and the family needs to obey types. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called some of these angry fathers' rights groups "domestic terrorists," and I believe rightly so.

This film had a tiny budget. How did you put it together?

Ah, we had the support of angels... and they came in many forms. First, attorney Toby Kleinman, the co-executive producer, reached out to a friend who shall go nameless (at his request) who gave us the first $10,000. Then we got "crowd-sourcing" funds from a Kickstarter campaign which I would just like to say is a great platform, but a lot of work. We managed to raise $20,000, but it was no walk in the park. Barry worked every day and we squeaked through at the end because of two other major givers. We hit up friends from our WBZ-TV Boston days who donated their time and talent. Others gave us mega-discounts because they were all so moved by Holly's story and they believed in the mission of the project. Students at BU worked on the project and I was able to use Boston University's equipment and editing rooms. That old saying is quite true: If you want to make a small fortune in documentary filmmaking, start with a large fortune and then make a film.

What happened to Holly since the production ended?

I am not at liberty to disclose Holly's location, but I can tell you that she is living in New England with her four delightful Dutch children. Their Dutch father visits often and is trying to get a green card.

Jennifer Collins, Holly's daughter, is the executive director of Courageous Kids, a network designed to help abused children come forward to talk about family court abuse. Zachary is living and working in Canada. Christopher is riding with the U.S. Biking Team in Europe.

What was the biggest surprise to you in working on Holly's story?

I guess what I am most surprised by is how many people 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.

We need to change the system.