WASHINGTON, June 26, 2013 — When 16-year-old Damon Moelter tied the knot at one of Reno’s iconic kitsch “chapels” recently, his ceremony marked the start of something remarkable. It wasn’t his age or the fact that he had only met his bride in person a few hours prior to the wedding that was most significant. What distinguishes this marriage and this groom from any other who might travel to Nevada to experience its offbeat brand of wedding services was that Damon chose to marry to protect himself from Family Court custody decisions stemming from his parents longstanding divorce battle. A marriage certificate gave him legal emancipation from his father, whom he alleges has repeatedly sexually molested him, and from Family Court rulings that stripped his protective mother of custody and forced him to live under the sole confines of the father he claims to fear.
Damon’s mother, Cindy Dumas, explained:
“I have never doubted my son. I fought for 10 years to protect him in the Family Court system. I did everything I could but the judges wouldn’t listen to me. They wouldn’t listen to my son. So when he’d turned 14, he ran away from his father and was in hiding for a year and a half.”
Unlike most custody battles that are played out privately behind the closed doors of Family Court, Damon’s story captured public attention thanks to YouTube. At the age of 13, Damon began to upload videos to YouTube calling for recognition that he was a victim of his sexually abusive father whom he said had threatened to kill him if he spoke out.
His father, Eric Moelter, has persistently denied the accusations, maintaining his son and former wife are delusional.
Eric Moelter mounted his own online campaign making a case for his innocence. Damon’s mother, Cindy Dumas, also presents her views online at a site dedicated to saving Damon and promoting understanding of child abuse issues.
The polarity of claims by the participants in the case poses many questions, not least of which is: why would a court switch custody from a mother and force her child, in this instance her son, to live with his father whom he believes is abusing him?
Phyllis Chesler, Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at City University, New York, has spent at least three decades observing cases such as Damon’s. She says it is not likely the decision was based on the mother’s parenting skills.
“No one would argue that all mothers are perfect, but most are ‘good enough’ and very few go to court with a record that suggests they are genuinely ‘unfit’ to parent.”
Yet, she says, increasingly, mothers are losing custody to fathers they allege are abusing the children.
Chesler is also a psychotherapist, expert courtroom witness and author of the recently updated, seminal treatise on abuse and child custody, “Mothers on Trial.” In her opinion:
“The courts don’t seem to realize a good father, by definition, doesn’t launch the custody battle from hell. Battles can take tens of years – like going through a war. No one emerges unscathed, least of all the children whom the courts are supposed to protect.”
Over the years, Chesler has seen a pattern emerging:
As she explains:
“Some mothers lost custody of their children to their batterers. Many battered mothers lost their children when they alleged their violent husbands had also been sexually abusing their child. Often such mothers are seen as “crazy,” and as “alienating” the child from their “perfectly nice” father.
Chesler relates that despite lack of formal recognition for “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” (PAS) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, accusations of PAS made against mothers have successfully been used as a legal tactic in custody disputes. Claims that mothers are suffering from this falsely claimed, pathological condition are commonly made by abusive fathers wishing to dispel any claims of abuse made by their former partner.
“The court system does not want to believe that a well-spoken, charismatic man could really be a savage wife-beater or child abuser. It is easier to believe that his traumatized, sleepless, frightened and rapidly impoverished wife is lying, exaggerating or imagining things. I have interviewed many such mothers.”
In 1986, after eight years of researching, Phyllis Chesler was the first academic to debunk the common misconception that mothers are more likely to win custody battles than fathers and she has continued to build on that research. She makes the significant distinction that mothers are usually the primary parent caring for children during the marriage, therefore they do not “win” custody as such, they “retain” it when fathers choose not to fight and custody of the children is agreed upon between parents.
Chesler vouches for an increasing body of statistical research that demonstrates when fathers do fight for custody, and divorces goes to trial - contesting fathers win custody at least 70 percent of the time.
Despite Chesler’s proven research, Dumas consistently came under fire not so much for the sincerity of her beliefs that her son had been molested, but by her refusal to put those beliefs aside for the sake of promoting his relationship with his father. She lost custody because she would not drop her claims of abuse and the court deemed this detrimental to Damon.
The court did not apply the same logic to Eric Moelter and punish him for his litigious persistence driven by his desire to win his son over and provide what he considered to be optimal parenting.
The Court appeared to rule that the father’s bid to have a relationship with his son was of higher priority than the mother’s bid to protect that son from perceived abuse. The son’s choice was overruled.
Many mothers might have cracked under the pressure of losing custody to a man they believe is molesting their child, but Cindy Dumas has shown remarkable tenacity and held her nerve. Likewise, over the course of proceedings, Damon came under the scrutiny of several judges, and an array of court appointed evaluators and therapists. Some tried to persuade him the abuse never happened; yet, he never veered from his molestation claims.
He’s remained adamant that he has no wish to live with his father. He said he would not feel safe.
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