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Facts or propaganda? Deconstructing advocacy

By Wendy McElroy
web posted May 3, 2004

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.

"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.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada. (c) 2004

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