Jewish World Review April 30, 2004 / 9 Nissan 5764

Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy
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Facts or propaganda? Deconstructing advocacy | Across North America, there are cries to overhaul both child welfare systems and family courts. Every faction seems to map a different path to reform. The debate, however, provides an insightful lesson for people who form their opinions on issues by seeking and evaluating the information disseminated by different advocacy organizations and groups.

Take, for example, an April 2 press release from the New York State branch of the National organization for Women. The release opens well enough with an attention-grabbing title: "Family Courts Fail to Protect Abused Children: A National Crisis." It follows up with an incendiary accusation. "[C]redible charges of child sex abuse made by mothers are [being] flagrantly ignored or suppressed by family court judges, court-appointed 'law guardians' and biased mental health experts."

Someone trying to form an objective opinion on this issue may assume that the charge being leveled in this press release is based on fact. However, such an indictment must be supported by evidence in the form of dependable studies and/or hard statistics. Often, press releases and statements provide documentation for their claims by directing readers to web sites that detail the evidence.

The NOW-NYS press release offers no studies, no statistics. Instead, it only mentions "two decades' worth of research by academics, women's legal centers, and child advocacy groups." Thus, readers should immediately wonder why they are not being given the tools to assess the alleged research.

A much weaker form of substantiation could be provided through anecdotal cases that are either presented by an unbiased source or independently verifiable. When claims rest on anecdotal evidence, it is especially important that the account(s) presented be relevant.

Through a web link, NOW-NYS offers one partisan presentation of a controversial case as anecdotal evidence: the 1983 divorce and 1986 custody dispute of Dr. Amy Neustein. Kathryn Mazierski, president of NOW-NYS, states in the press release, "in so many cases, like Neustien [sic], judges, state agencies and biased 'experts' suppress evidence of child sexual abuse."

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The Neustein case very well may be an example of misconduct or incompetence on the part of New York's child protection services and family courts in New York. But NOW-NYS has given the case the burden of being representative of a current national trend and evidence that "a federal investigation" is warranted.

The case -- too complicated and protracted to address the details of in this column -- does not live up to this claim on several grounds. First, the case was settled in the '80s, with some legal actions continuing into the 90's. It is not clear how the case reflects on today's family law realities, which have evolved significantly since then. Secondly, given that family law can vary dramatically from state-to-state, one New York case does not indicate a nation-wide crisis; in fact, one case cannot indicate a wide spread problem even within New York.

Additionally, debate continues to surround the case; whether or not the case was a miscarriage of justice or not is far from resolved.

Thus, the only evidence provided to support NOW-NYS' claim that a federal investigation of current practices is necessary fails on all counts. The appended contact list of advocates who either support NOW-NYS' suggested reforms or have written in defense of Neustein does not constitute evidence but merely more advocacy.

In continuing a deconstruction of this press release, we move to its conclusion: NOW-NYS lists five charges of corruption or malfeasance that they want the federal government to investigate. The first one concerns family court judges:

"Research has revealed...Judges who threaten and insult children who have reported being abused -- calling them liars and pressuring them to recant -- behind closed chamber doors."

In the absence of supporting research, specific court cases or judges' names, the reader is left with a vague accusation that at least two judges somewhere in the United States have recently threatened and insulted children in chambers. However, not only is this charge vaguely stated, but it is also not clear to what NOW-NYS is objecting.

For example, judges must use discretion if they believe a charge is spurious. In such circumstances, they may be less likely to embarrass a child in open court than to question the child in private. Is NOW-NYS objecting to a judge ever testing a child's account in chambers? Or are they warning against abuses that might occur during an otherwise reasonable practice? If abuse is the fear, then is a federal investigation the appropriate remedy?

A more practical solution would be to sanction the individual judges and to make sure an attorney representing the child's interests is always present; indeed, the latter is common practice. In short, it is not clear how the solution NOW-NYS is advocating is relevant to the problem being identified.

In this case, a federal investigation would not solve the five specific charges raised in the release, but it would help reformers bypass having to campaign on a state-by-state basis.

The real purpose of press releases issued by many advocacy groups is often not to disseminate unbiased facts but to promote an agenda. The purpose of this press release was buried in the middle of the text and never cleanly stated: NOW-NYS wishes to pit the federal government against state power in family court.

To the extent this press release says anything true or interesting, it discredits that truth and discourages discussion. Therein lies its final lesson: When reading statements and releases from groups that either advocate on issues or seem the source of information on an issue, make sure that the facts support their agenda. Often, you'll find that they work backward from an agenda to the facts, and in the process damage both.

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JWR contributor Wendy McElroy is the editor of She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada. Comment by clicking here.


03/26/04: Reading between the numbers
03/11/04: When ‘mother’ is a bureaucracy
03/04/04: Do Gun Control Activists Pad Gun Death Statistics?
02/26/04: The Separation of School and State
01/21/04: A Man's (and Woman's) Home Is a Castle
12/17/04: The Conservative Cookie Rebellion
11/26/03: Zero Patience for Zero Tolerance
10/22/03: Killing the Good Samaritan
10/08/03: Collective western guilt burdens today's children
10/01/03: Families pay price for government spending
09/24/03: Do Poor Fathers Deserve Debtors' Prison?
08/29/03: Going to extremes
08/23/03: The Marriage Strike
07/30/03: University Students Deserve Human Rights
07/09/03: The PCspeak of Diversity
07/02/03: Rebuttable presumption of joint custody
06/18/03: A Conscientious Objector to the Gender War
06/04/03: Gender issues impacted by masculinists
05/28/03: The value of error
05/21/03: U.S. to Fund Gender Feminism in Africa?
05/14/03: Cut men: Do they not bleed?
05/07/03: Women with guns fight back
04/30/03: No oil for food
04/28/03: The Great Lie
04/16/03: War may redefine gun control
04/09/03: Why we must discuss a post-war U.S.
04/02/03: Leftist feminists using war as podium
03/26/03: Laying down 'the white woman's burden'
03/19/03: Iraq War may kill feminism as we know it
03/13/03: A woman to replace Saddam
02/19/03: Elder abuse demands family solutions
02/13/03: Iraqi women brutalized by Saddam
01/29/03: There ought not to be a law
01/22/03: Gambling with race and gender cards
01/02/03: The future of fatherhood
12/26/02: U.N. complicit in forced sterilizations
12/20/02: Compassion, kindness killed by fear, paranoia
12/11/02: Affirmative action insults immigrant contributions
12/04/02: Stand up for yourself
11/27/02: Feminist fighting: Aren't we all women?
11/20/02: Rights & responsibilities
11/14/02: Feminist "urban legends"
11/06/02: Equal access does not guarantee equal outcome
10/24/02: Battered Women's Syndrome: Science or sham?
10/17/02: I demand a civil society that respects the individual and acknowledges the existence of honest disagreement between human beings of good will
10/09/02: Abortion debate is about to be ratcheted up yet again
10/02/02: 'Restorative justice' offers battered women more options
09/25/02: Why is prez promising to embrace UN radical social engineering programs?
09/18/02: Dirty dealings kill men's panel
09/11/02: Taking back your power
09/05/02: Calm down, Hootie!
08/21/02: Will Congress empower a group of radical feminists to oversee money slated for Afghan women?
08/14/02: Empower the U.N. with power to sculpt American laws and institutions into the image of gender feminism!?
08/01/02: Practicing 'intellectual virtue'
07/24/02: All male, bad. All female, good: Your tax dollars at work
07/11/02: Put Up or Shut Up
07/03/02: NOW they've done it, again!
06/19/02: A dark cloud shades U.N. Women's Treaty
06/10/02: This Father's Day, send justice
05/31/02: When good women do nothing
05/28/02: Feminists claiming motherhood as liberal cause
05/20/02: Wounds in health care system are self-inflicted: Or, why "my son the lawyer" makes more sense
05/10/02: Are parents boycotting public schools?
05/03/02: Women can't be gun-shy about defense
04/25/02: The Bill of Intellectual Rights
04/19/02: World Bank or World Government?: The World Bank is blackmailing impoverished nations
04/12/02: Victims From Birth: Engineering Defects in Helpless Children Crosses the Line
04/05/02: The professor made me cry, now I will make him pay!
03/31/02: Doctors and teens --- parents be on guard
03/22/02: I was born, now I'm suing you!
03/15/02: The 21st Century is knocking at the barricaded door of feminism
03/08/02: Fun and games at the Ms mag Bulletin Board
03/01/02: Andrea Yates, NOW, and Feminist Jurisprudence
02/22/02: Lady, Your Slip is Showing
02/14/02: 'Abusing' Valentine's Day
02/11/02: Is NOW Pro-Choice or Pro-Abortion?
02/01/02: Are 'fathers' rights' a factor in male suicide?
01/25/02: Is the U.N. Running Brothels in Bosnia?
01/18/02: 'Freedom' at another's (moral) expense
01/11/02: Feminists hit Ground Zero with WTC funds grab
01/04/02: Males winning "diversity discrimination" cases is good?
12/21/01: Good will toward men
12/14/01: "Boss Tweed" feminism
12/07/01: Call me 'anti-woman'

© 2001, Wendy McElroy