Daily Herald

Family law's nasty 'nuclear bomb'

By David R. Kazak
Daily Herald Legal Affairs Writer
Chicago Daily Herald
Posted on March 12, 2001

On a snowy evening in late November, Michael Reichart sat in the kitchen of his Arlington Heights home, rubbed his temples and prepared for what he called "the onslaught."

The previous day in Tucson, Ariz., the FBI had found Joli Taylor, Reichart's ex-wife, and the couple's only daughter, Alese. Together, the two vanished in 1991 when the girl was 5 years old.

Reichart knew this meant resuming his custody battle with Taylor, a battle she laced with accusations painting Reichart as a sexual abuser of Alese.

Child welfare workers, police and medical experts investigated each charge. And each conclusion was the same: No evidence of abuse.

Taylor's last accusation, lobbed just before she disappeared, wasn't investigated. Reichart says it's as false as the others. Taylor's supporters say it will be her vindication from felony child abduction charges.

"I'm going to have to go through it all over again," Reichart said that snowy night. "All the ugliness, it will come up again.

"I'm not afraid of her because I've withstood the onslaught before," he said. "I just don't want to go through it again."

False allegations ruin lives

False allegations levied during divorce or custody battles reside in a dark, musty and controversial corner of family law. Without exception, they elicit disdain from domestic law experts.

Steven N. Peskind, a suburban Chicago divorce attorney who handles cases in DuPage and Kane counties, said the reason is simple: An allegation alone - regardless of veracity - holds incredible destructive power.

"It's the nuclear bomb of family law," Peskind said. "(Sexual abuse) accusations, even false ones, can literally destroy people's lives. It's not a 'He'll get over it' sort of thing."

Round Lake resident Andrew Panzica knows this firsthand.

When his ex-wife levied sex abuse charges against him during the final days of a five-year custody battle, Panzica found himself criminally charged with sexually assaulting his own kids.

That was in 1999. Last week, a Cook County judge acquitted Panzica of the charges, but it didn't erase two years of being "black-balled" by the community, Panzica said.

In fact, he said, he had to move from his Palatine apartment because the landlord started receiving physical threats as soon as Panzica's name and address were publicized.

He hasn't had contact with his children in two years and knows the allegations will follow him into civil court if he ever seeks any sort of visitation.

Panzica is also aware there will always be whispers behind his back from those who think he's guilty.

Accusations of abuse common

While most experts have a singular disgust for false, custody-related sexual abuse allegations that turn out to be false, there's a vast gap in opinion about whether false allegations are truly problems worth worrying about.

Some, including DuPage-based child psychologist Richard DeLorto, say false allegations are becoming common in custody cases.

"The reality is, it's happening so much you just don't know who to believe anymore," said DeLorto, a child custody evaluator and director and founder of the Chicago Divorce Association.

DeLorto has testified in criminal and civil cases, providing supporting evidence for accusers and defending those he felt were wrongly accused. But, he said, he always keeps the most important aspect of any case - the child - foremost in his mind because as a child he was abused.

It's a point of view that drives him to put false accusations on par with actual abuse. What's worse, he said, is that his view seems lost on parents who invoke these accusations with little or nothing to back them up.

"The attitude seems to be, 'As long as we can win, that's all that counts, and who cares what happens to the child?'" DeLorto said.

Other experts, including Mark Parr, executive director of the Hoffman Estates-based Child Advocacy Center, which helps local and state authorities investigate child abuse cases, have a more tempered view of whether false custody-related allegations are becoming a problem.

False accusations coming from divorce and custody cases unfortunately do happen, Parr said, but they're not increasing in frequency, as DeLorto thinks.

Also, he said, he questioned the term "false."

"Of the cases that are unfounded, I certainly think some were valid, only we weren't able to find evidence to prove it," Parr said.

Both Parr and DeLorto placed a caveat on their thoughts. Their views come solely from their own experience and work with the issue.

The reason they hinge their opinions on anecdotal evidence is because very few researchers have bothered to seek out how often sexual abuse allegations are raised in divorce and custody situations, or how many times those allegations turn out to be false.

The one research project on the issue that experts cite most often was conducted 13 years ago by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in Denver.

After studying 9,000 contested custody cases, the organization flagged 169 - about 2 percent - in which one parent levied a sexual abuse allegations during the proceedings. Of those, the study found, about half were substantiated. The rest were classified as either false or unsubstantiated.

Without other solid research, the issue swirls in controversial stories and conjecture indicating false allegations are much more frequent or much less frequent than the Denver study suggests.

"It's a mess," said Frank Sassetti, a psychologist who does custody evaluations for Cook County family court. "It's not as clean cut as everybody would like."

Still, even if current research answered those questions, using statistics to define this issue could distract evaluators and investigators from giving each allegation the attention it deserves, said the Advocacy Center's Parr.

What's important, he said, is ensuring that all allegations of custody-related sexual abuse are investigated thoroughly.

At the center, he said, that thoroughness is achieved by ensuring that any conclusions in an allegation investigation is drawn by a group of experts, not just one person. That group will include police, state's attorneys and an advocate for the child.

Even if a child details some sort of abuse, Parr said, the disclosure will be scrutinized too.

"We have to know, do we really have a clear picture of what they're saying?" he said. "Is it really sexual abuse? We have to make sure we're not erring on the side of accusing someone who's done nothing wrong."

Issue tough for judges

Criminal convictions require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But in civil cases, including custody cases, the standard is much less. And that puts judges in a precarious position.

"(A sexual abuse allegation) is one of the toughest issues we deal with," said Judge Moshe Jacobius, who presides over Cook County Court's domestic relations division.

"When an allegation arises - if all the judge has is the allegation - then the court has to weigh the possible harm to the child with regard to the allegation."

That means an emergency request for termination of visitation could be granted and kept in place until the judge can gather more evidence to make a solid determination, Jacobius said.

So judges will order evaluations. Both parents can hire their own expert evaluators. Sometimes, the Department of Children and Family Services will evaluate the situation and weigh in, too.

But in the meantime, Jacobius said, everything else regarding the case stops.

"You have to wait and see what both sides have to say," he said.

Why parents lie about abuse

If the consensus is that false allegations of sexual abuse do happen in divorce and custody situations, then one question remains: Why?

Why would a parent levy a charge so horrible if it isn't true? Is it calculated? Is one parent teaching their child to say something horrific against the other solely as a tactic to gain the upper hand in a custody battle?

"We always have to be cautious about a child making statements (of abuse), Parr said. "We have to be careful about saying, 'This is a child who hasn't been coached.' "

David Royko, who directs Cook County Circuit Court's Marriage and Counseling Service, said he felt it was an extremely rare instance where a false accusation is deliberate, but those that are can be rooted in revenge.

"The person feels so abused themselves because of the divorce, like they have been destroyed, that the next best thing to killing the other person is to psychologically and publicly kill them," he said.

Judge Jacobius said he's presided over cases where he's ultimately determined that no abuse occurred. But he said he's never made a finding where the allegation was deliberately false.

"In divorce, your world gets turned upside down," Sassetti said. "You have lawyers, judges, friends, all with their own agendas, all weighing in with advice. Then, maybe, you see you're losing ground with your children, and you become very, very scared.

"Then you see something, something that may be a normal thing for a child, natural sexual exploration, and you're scared, and you start to see things that just aren't there."

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