MYTHS AND FACTS ABOUT THE PROTECTIVE MOTHER CASE
Few protective mother cases have attracted as much media attention - or prominent political support - than that of Dr. Amy Neustein, whose only child, Sherry, was forcibly removed from her mother's home, without the legally required proceedings, in October 1986. Dr. Neustein was barred from all contact with her daughter in 1989.
OF AMY NEUSTEIN, Ph.D.
Dr. Neustein had divorced her husband, Ozzie Orbach, M.D., in 1983. They had one daughter, Sherry, who continued to live in her mother's sole custody for three years after the divorce. After an eyewitness report in 1986 that the father had allegedly sexually abused Sherry, the Child Protection system swung rapidly into action - not against the father, but against the mother, Dr. Neustein.
This case has drawn intense media attention for decades, and its outrageous facts have prompted multiple legislative hearings (in New York state and in Congress) and angry comments and letters from legislators such as former New York State Senator David Paterson (now Governor of New York), Andrew Stein, Congressman Major Owens, Congressman Jerrold Nadler and others, all of whom recognized wrongs inflicted on the mother and daughter in this case by the child welfare system. Unfortunately, the case's very prominence has made Dr. Neustein a natural target for fathers' rights groups and others with something to hide in connection with child sex abuse. To set the record of the case straight, the following facts should be carefully borne in mind. All can be established from court records, written statements from witnesses, unrefuted press accounts and similar sources.
I. Evidence that the Child Was Sexually Abused
II. Mishandling of the Case by Authorities
- An eyewitness (the child's grandmother) observed an incident of alleged sexual abuse by the father in May 1986 while the father was visiting the child, Sherry. The grandmother witnessed the father lying on his back with the child pressed tightly against his pelvis as he gyrated. When the grandmother removed the child, the father's zipper was open and his pants were wet. (The parents had divorced three years earlier and the father had visited weekly thereafter.) The mother (Dr. Neustein) was not present at the time.
- The child confirmed the alleged abuse to a family therapist. She confirmed it again to Dr. Anne Meltzer, one of New York State's leading authorities on child sexual abuse. She also confirmed it to the supervisor in charge of the investigation by the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (BSPCC).
- BSPCC's supervisor (Robert Sloan) and its attorney (Harvey Jacobs) both stated in court that the child had the symptomatology of an abused child.
- Dr. Anne Meltzer tested the child with anatomically correct dolls and concluded that she had "strong reason to believe that Sherry had been sexually abused on more than one occasion by her father."
- After the child was removed from her mother's custody and placed in foster care, the foster mother (who had no contact with the child's mother) reported another incident of possible sexual abuse by the father to the foster care agency.
- When the child was placed in her father's custody at the age of eight, she suffered from severe anorexia nervosa, which eventually required hospitalization. A psychologist and a pediatrician who examined Sherry both believed that the onset of such severe anorexia at such an early age was symptomatic of sexual abuse. The severe anorexia recurred in 1992, costing Sherry 11 pounds, three years after Dr. Neustein had been barred from all contact with her daughter.
- While Sherry was hospitalized for severe anorexia, she was overheard by a nurse telling her father, "You got me into this. If you don't get me out of here, I'm going to tell everything." This was reported to child welfare officials.
III. Evidence of Loving Relationship between Child and Mother
- Sherry's statement to the BSPCC supervisor confirming the eyewitness abuse report was never investigated. The father was never even interviewed by BSPCC. BSPCC did initially charge the father (Ozzie Orbach) with child abuse, but abruptly dropped all charges against him.
- BSPCC charged Dr. Neustein with either having failed to prevent the child's abuse or for having made a false abuse report. However, she was not present when the incident in question occurred, and so could not have prevented it; and since it was her mother who had made the report, not she, she could not have made a false report.
- Though the charges against Dr. Neustein could not have been true (as shown above), Dr. Neustein was ordered to have both psychiatric and psychological evaluations. Her psychiatric evaluation was unremarkable. On her way to the psychological exam, she experienced chest pains and checked herself into a hospital for cardiac tests, causing her to miss the appointment. Though her reason for missing the appointment was communicated to BSPCC and the Family Court, and even though she volunteered to reschedule within the time period established by a court order, Family Court removed Sherry from Dr. Neustein's custody the very next day for missing the appointment. (At that time, Dr. Orbach had not had the required psychological exam either.)
- When these errors were pointed out in court, BSPCC rewrote its charge against Dr. Neustein, claiming that she had caused the child to believe she had been abused. Family Court refused to return the child to her home. She remained in foster care.
- Neither BSPCC nor the Legal Aid Society (which intervened as Sherry's "law guardian") had Sherry interviewed by a psychologist specializing in child sexual abuse. When Dr. Neustein retained Dr. Meltzer (see above) at her own expense, they tried to prevent her from interviewing Sherry. When after a single session Dr. Meltzer stated her "strong reason to believe Sherry had been sexually abused on more than one occasion by her father," they blocked all subsequent sessions with Dr. Meltzer.
- Family Court did not allow Dr. Neustein to present any expert testimony that Sherry had been abused, though several well-qualified experts, including Dr. Anne Meltzer, tried to state their suspicions.
- When the psychiatrist chosen by Legal Aid Society examined Dr. Neustein, found no evidence of mental illness, and recommended that Sherry be returned to her, its attorney refused to share the psychiatrist's report with the court.
- The Family Court judge then hand-picked a psychologist to evaluate the parents and Sherry - Dr. Arthur Green, notorious for his skepticism of child sexual abuse reports. In a tape-recorded conversation, Dr. Green told Dr. Neustein that the judge and other officials involved in the case had already decided that no abuse had occurred (though no trial had yet taken place), and that he therefore would not believe it had, no matter what else he heard. Family Court did not allow Dr. Neustein to present evidence of this conversation at trial.
- Immediately after trial, one of Legal Aid Society's caseworkers admitted, in the hearing of a witness and Dr. Neustein's lawyer, that Legal Aid had known all along that the incident witnessed by Sherry's grandmother had occurred - though Legal Aid and BSPCC had insisted throughout trial that it had not. At a special New York legislative hearing into the Neustein case, a whistle-blower from Legal Aid testified that the caseworker admitted that what she had said "could get them [Legal Aid] into a lot of trouble," and that she was told afterward by Legal Aid's attorney to "keep her big mouth shut" in the future. Family Court would not allow any Dr. Neustein to present the facts showing the suppression of crucial evidence by the child's own "law guardian."
- Sherry's foster mother's report of another suspected incident of sexual abuse was never reported to the state "hotline," as legally required, even though the report was given to the foster care agency and was known to Legal Aid.
- Legal Aid never investigated Sherry's condition while she was in foster care, though a psychiatrist later testified that she was "miserable" and was treated badly.
- In 1989, during a visit with Sherry, Dr. Neustein took the child to a hospital for treatment for her severe anorexia. Several doctors have testified that this may have saved Sherry's life. One called Sherry "by far the worst case of emaciation I have ever seen." Nevertheless, Family Court terminated Dr. Neustein's visits with her daughter because she had taken the child to the hospital without consulting her ex-husband.
- No action of any kind was taken against Ozzie Orbach despite serious evidence that he had neglected Sherry's life-threatening condition.
- Sherry's statement to her father while hospitalized - "You got me into this. If you don't get me out of here, I'm going to tell everything" - was never investigated, though it was reported to Child Protective Services.
- Legal Aid withheld hospital photos taken of Sherry's severely emaciated body from Family Court. After the hospital was forced to provide them, the photos disappeared from the court file. (The hospital also "lost" them.)
- When Dr. Neustein pressed for an investigation of the case, it was referred to the Fatality Review Panel, which only investigates cases after a child dies. When Dr. Neustein learned of this, she tried to find out from Child Welfare officials whether Sherry had died. They refused to tell her, claiming they could only tell this to Legal Aid Society. Legal Aid took weeks to inform Dr. Neustein that her daughter was alive, despite numerous requests.
IV. Myths and Facts about the Case
- Sherry stated in interviews after being removed from her home that her goal was to "get back to Mommy."
- Family Court Judge Leon Deutsch, whose rulings were consistently hostile to Dr. Neustein, admitted that nearly 8 months after her removal from her home, while in foster care, Sherry told him personally that she disliked her father and wanted to live with her mother.
- Rachel Anolick, a neutral supervisor who watched over all of Dr. Neustein's interactions with her daughter for more than a year, reported in an official affirmation filed with Family Court that the child had a close and loving relationship with her mother, looked forward to her visits with her mother, and was reluctant to go back to her father's house after visits.
- Regarding the end of one of innumerable happy visits during that time - when "it was time to back to her father's - Ms. Anolick recently wrote, "I can't describe adequately in words the transformation. She became morose, non-talkative, she stared down hard at her lap . . . her arm felt hard to the touch as if every muscle had been contracted."
- After Dr. Neustein hospitalized Sherry for emergency treatment of her life-threatening anorexia, Ms. Anolick began to observe a change in Sherry's demeanor toward her mother. As one example, in an official affirmation, Ms. Anolick testified: "[A]s Amy and I drove up to Ozzie Orbach's house to pick up Sherry . . . [Sherry] seemed relaxed and expectant. Suddenly, Dr. Orbach leaned over her and whispered something in her ear. Sherry instantly went berserk. . . . Later in the same visit, Sherry yelled at Amy that she was "paying Rachel [Anolick] to be your friend." Dr. Orbach's brother-in-law, Martin Berger, who stood on one side of Sherry, looked over her at Dr. Orbach . . . with a smile that seemed to me a sign of congratulation."
- During this period, Sherry (in her father's custody) reported to her school principal her fear that if she continued to visit her mother, her mother would confine her to "a hospital for crazy people" and that she would not "come out." Dr. Neustein had no such plan. According to the principal, Sherry said she had heard this from "family."
Recently, attempts to discredit Dr. Neustein have surfaced in comments made about her case by fathers' rights activists and others with a similar agenda. A few of the myths circulated about the case are listed below.
- Myth: Dr. Neustein made allegations against her husband in the midst of a custody dispute.
Fact: Dr. Neustein had been divorced, with full custody of the child, for three years before the child's grandmother reported observing the child's father sexually abusing the girl. At that time, Ozzie Orbach (the child's father) created a "custody dispute" by filing an action for divorce and custody, claiming in court that he did not know he was already divorced (though he had been filing tax returns as a single person for three years).
- Myth: the child's report of her father's sexual abuse to authorities was incredible.
Fact: Reports prepared by Robert Sloan, BSPCC supervisor, showed that when Sherry was asked to say what she knew of her father's behavior from her own experience, she described the act reported by her grandmother. Moreover, Dr. Anne Meltzer tested Sherry with anatomically correct dolls, and found Sherry's account credible.
- Myth: experts rejected the sex abuse allegations in court.
Fact: Dr. Meltzer, the only sex abuse expert who ever evaluated Sherry, found "strong reason to believe that Sherry had been sexually abused on more than one occasion by her father." However, Dr. Meltzer was not permitted to testify to this in court. Other psychologists were likewise precluded from testifying to their suspicions. Dr. Green, Judge Deutsch's hand-picked expert, told Dr. Neustein in a tape-recorded conversation that he would not consider the possibility Sherry had been sexually abused because the court had already decided the issue. (Trial had not been completed, and the questions involved in the proceeding had not been decided in any legal fashion.)
- Myth: the child herself has disproved Dr. Neustein's charges.
Fact: At the age of six, Sherry reported having been abused; her report was corroborated by an eyewitness, a sex abuse expert, and by the parallel observation of her foster mother (who reported a separate incident). Almost 20 years later, she circulated by email a column saying she had not been abused. At that time, she had had no contact of any sort with her mother for 16 years. The column does not explain how Sherry fooled Dr. Meltzer, and Sherry has declined to address that question since then. The column also contains a number of manifest factual errors (though Sherry insists she remembers the events "as if it were yesterday"): for instance, that Dr. Neustein had abandoned Sherry long before the abuse allegations, and that Sherry did not live in her mother's home in Brooklyn. Clearly Sherry does not remember the events in question as well as she believes she does, a fact that could result from the influence of others.
- Myth: Dr. Neustein controlled the coverage of her case because her daughter and ex-husband preferred to keep family matters private.
Fact: Ozzie Orbach, and supporters such as his brother-in-law Martin Burger (or Berger), have vigorously presented Orbach's story to reporters who have investigated the Neustein case, distributing large volumes of (usually edited) documents and tape recordings as well as giving interviews. Burger also appeared at a legislative hearing into the case in an effort to defame Dr. Neustein, though he refused to testify. Sherry herself has recently claimed having attempted to discredit her mother with producers at ABC television and the National Organization for Women. Orbach's supporters even attempted to interfere with the publication of a book on the family court system Dr. Neustein co-authored in 2005, although her own case is never explicitly discussed in the book. Orbach's supporters have not kept quiet; they have simply avoided an open dialogue about specific facts of the case, preferring intrigue and character assassination.
Useful sources of information on this case include:
- "The Horror of Family Court," by Viva. New York Woman, November 1989 (pp. 110-115)
- "Powers that Be Doom this Little Girl," by Ray Kerrison. New York Post, October 23, 1992 (one of ten columns Kerrison wrote on Neustein)
- "Pols Demand Look into Child's Case," by Michael Powell. New York Newsday, November 7, 1992
- Divorced From Justice: The Abuse of Women and Children by Divorce Lawyers and Judges by Karen Winner. New York, NY: HarperCollins Pubs., Inc. (Neustein case referenced in book as "the most tragic, highly profiled case…")
- "A Child's at Stake: A Custody Fight Becomes a Political Nightmare," by Adam Fifield and Michael Lesher. Village Voice, October 1, 1996 (pp. 10, 12-13)
- "Waiting for Sherry Part II: Who Doesn't Want From Madness to Mutiny Published ... and Why?" by Susan Rosenbluth. The Jewish Voice and Opinion, May 2005 (pp. 3, 6, 8-10, 12-14, 16)
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