Litigating the Cult-Related Child Custody Case
Randy Frances Kandel, J. D., Ph. D.
Successful litigation of child custody cases in which one
parent is a member of a destructive cult requires strategies and techniques that
focus the court's attention on the fact that the hierarchical totalitarian
structure of the cult controls both parent and child. The cult leaders
substantially usurp the parenting function; their dictates replace the
decision-making usually exercised by custodial parents; and the parent-child
interaction is embedded in and inseparable from cult practices and
Child custody litigation between a cult member parent and
an independent parent can involve a broader judicial inquiry into the techniques
of mind, lifestyle, and environmental control practiced by destructive cults
than virtually any other type of cult-related litigation. In cases involving
adults, the courts have been generally reluctant to recognize causes of action
grounded in psychological manipulation (such as "coercive persuasion" or "mind
control") because of the law's strong presumption that adults act autonomously
and voluntarily. But no comparable presumption attaches to children when
custody is at issue. To the contrary, the very purpose of child custody
litigation is to decide on an environment (human and otherwise) that will be "in
the best interests of the child."
The court may evaluate the rules and relationships to which
the child will be exposed common-sensibly and qualitatively (if not
judgmentally) precisely with regard to the formative effect they may have on the
child's developing psyche.
The statutory recitation of the factors to be considered in
determining child custody varies slightly from state to state, but it
universally involves broad, sweeping inquiry into the relative "fitness" of the
parents emotionally, financially, and otherwise. Testimony on the daily ritual
and minutiae of cult life, including how and with whom the child spends time,
the extent and nature of parental interaction, the methods of child discipline,
the child's education, and the non-parental adults who will interact with the
child, is relevant to the determination.
Sullivanian Beliefs and Practices
In the past several years, our firm and others have
represented in child custody matters several former members of the so-called
"psychotherapeutic community" known as the Sullivan Institute for Research in
Psychoanalysis/Fourth Wall Repertory Company. This entity, based in New York
City's Upper West Side, has approximately 250 members, most of whom are
well-educated professionals in their late twenties to early forties.
The core of the Sullivanian theory is that the nuclear
family and all strong dyadic relationships are psychologically destructive, and
that parent-child bonds in particular are the root of all evil and the
mainspring of psychological maladjustment.
Members must break off contact with parents and friends
"outside" and learn to loathe them; avoid forming intense dyadic relationships;
and maintain ongoing sexual relationships with other group members. Marriages,
although permitted for reasons of convenience, financial and the like, are
non-monogamous, non-co residential, and frequently formed and dissolved at the
dictates of the leadership.
The heart of the various profit and not-for-profit entities
under which the Sullivanians operate is a "psychotherapeutic institute" to which
the leaders and both licenses and lay therapists belong. All members are
required to be in perpetual therapy with these therapists. According to former
Sullivanians, the therapists control members' lives through manipulation of the
transference phenomenon. Transference is the process by which the patient
transfers onto the therapist many of the primary reactions, feelings, and
thoughts that were once associated with other highly significant persons in the
patient's life. Responsibly handled transference can be therapeutic, but it
offers the therapist an opportunity to exercise great control over the patient.
Unscrupulously handled transference can become a medium to foster cult
allegiance and a means to the authoritarian domination of cult members.
Former Sullivanian therapists admit that therapeutic
confidentiality is broken down in the group.
Therapy sessions are a means for the leaders to extract
information and exert control. The therapists themselves report the substance
of therapy sessions to their own supervisors, the Sullivanian leaders.
Most Sullivanians, married or unmarried, live with other
Sullivanians in sex-segregated apartments.
Peer pressure, encouraged and directed by Sullivanian
therapists, reinforces conformity to Sullivanian mores and dictates of the
Not surprisingly, Sullivanian child-raising practices
manifest Sullivanian ideology. As described by former Sullivanians, the
therapist's consent is needed to bear or raise a child. Sometimes it is
decided, prior to birth or even conception, that the biological parent and the
nurturing parent will be different people. From infancy the cult applies
stringent measures to interfere with the development of loving bonds between
mother and baby. Full-time babysitters or "committees" of cult members, under
the authoritarian direction of the cult leader, are assigned to each child and
act as guards and gossips to ward off any show of maternal affection. Others
who are excessively demonstrative toward their children may have their babies
taken from them for foster-parenting or adoption by other group members.
As the child grows, a continuous round of adults other than
the parent or full-time babysitter supervises the child for some brief period of
time each day so that parents may be literally forced to "date" their own
Parents must discuss every aspect of their children's lives
with their therapists, and the children themselves are frequently in therapy
from an early age. Thus, every aspect of the children's lives � what they shall
do, who their friends shall be, where they shall go to school, how they shall
spend vacations � comes directly under the purview and control of the
Litigation Strategies and Tactics
In one of the custody proceedings, which are the basis for
this report, our firm represented a mother who had been forbidden contact with
her infant daughter by the Sullivanian leadership. The mother took the child
and left the Sullivanian community, at which point the father/husband petitioned
for a writ of habeas corpus. In the other two proceedings, handled by other
counsel not of our firm, fathers who are former Sullivanians sought custody of
their children from their ex-wives who continue to live in the Sullivanian
community. Based upon our experience and observations, we can suggest certain
general guidelines for attorneys to consider in similar situations.
Emphasize the Destructive and Dangerous Influence of the Cult on the Child
Make the court aware at the outset that the adversary is
the cult and that the cult is dangerous. In the case handled by my firm, this
issue emerged immediately when we refused to disclose the address of the mother
and child. We maintained that confidentiality was needed because of the risk of
physically and psychologically dangerous reprisals from the Sullivanians.
Indeed, courts have held quite uniformly that the
whereabouts of a spouse and children are protected by the attorney-client
privilege where one spouse fears the other's violent propensities or where the
marital situation appears to be potentially explosive. We argued that
confidentiality was even more necessary in a case, like the one in question,
where the wife/mother fears not merely an estranged husband, but the combined
force of a cult group which operates through physical violence and psychological
When we refused to reveal the mother's address, the court
held several days of evidentiary hearings on the dangerous aspects of the
Sullivanians � placing the destructiveness of the cult environment into issue
prior to any concerns about individual parental fitness.
Former Sullivanians testified about physical and
psychological control within the group. Former Sullivanian parents testified
that they had been forced to surrender their children or were required to send
them to boarding school at ages as young as three years. Young adults who had
been raised within the Sullivanians testified about the suffering they had
experienced. (One Sullivanian-raised young adult had become a teenage
alcoholic. Another had committed suicide.)
Although never formally concluded because our case was
happily resolved, these hearings set the stage for all further proceedings.
Most significantly through these hearings, a kind of "longitudinal evidence" was
brought into the case by which the destructiveness of Sullivanian child-raising
patterns was demonstrated through testimony of the psychological injuries
suffered by other children raised in the group.
Focus on Control: The Cult Leader as the Real Parent
Bring the cult leaders into the case. Put them on the
stand and let them expose themselves through their own testimony. If
procedurally possible (for example, as respondents on a habeas corpus petition),
join the cult leaders or significant members as parties in the case. Their
"parenting" role is a genuine and material factor in determining custody.
In child custody litigation, the issue of relative parental
"fitness" can be dispositive. A fit parent is a parent capable of making
independent, mature, autonomous, and rational decisions about the raising of a
child, and also capable of acting upon those decisions. Parents who must "clear
everything" with their therapist or who must respond blindly to the dictates of
the leadership do not meet this standard.
Fortunately, during the course of extended litigation the
authoritarian control of the cult leaders will frequently make itself evident.
For example, decisions to move all the cult children from one school to another
or from one summer camp to another; or to permit or deny all cult children to
engage in a certain activity or to play with other children, betray the absence
of responsible, independent parenting. Bring all such examples of controlled
group action to the court's attention.
The fact of leadership control is related to the issue of
parents' rights as well as parental fitness. The right to decide how one's
child shall be raised is not necessarily equivalent to the right to turn over to
someone else decisions about how one's child shall be raised. While both
parents may be assumed at the outset to have equal rights to their children, the
same is not true of parental surrogates whom the cult may appoint.
In the Sullivanian cases particularly, the practices of
appointing perpetual babysitters, rotating cult members in turn to care for the
baby, and limiting the parents' own time with the child, were arguments against
cult parents' having primary custody. The amount of time and the amount of
quality time that a parent is able to spend with a child are usually factors in
deciding the ordinary custody case. Thus, the extraordinarily small amount of
private quality time a cult parent spends with a child may be of particular
Keep Multiple Cases Before the Same Judge
Few things can be more advantageous in cult-related custody
litigation than to keep several cases involving the same cult before the same
First, the repetition and expansion of contextual
information that can thus be provided to the court makes a strong evidentiary
statement on the quality and nature of a child's life in a cult. Besides, cults
are exposed when the same patterns of oddities and abuse in child-raising
matters and husband-wife relations occur again and again in multiple cases.
From an evidentiary perspective, trying multiple cult cases before the same
judge permits evidence on the often bizarre similarities in the lives of
different cult children � revealing and proving a cult pattern and practice that
might otherwise appear to be vagaries and idiosyncrasies of parental
personalities. When various cult cases are assigned to a single judge, the
court can gain a thorough understanding of the manipulations of the cult
leadership, which may be impossible to perceive by viewing any single case in
Second, assignment to the same judge makes possible
cooperation and collaboration among the various non-cult parents and their
attorneys. Working through such a "quasi-class action" structure allows
non-cult parties to meet the power of the cult with their own power. All
attorneys, and sometimes all parties, may attend judicial conferences. It
enables non-cult parties to combine financial resources against the vastly
greater financial power of the cult by sharing the costs of trial preparation,
expert witness fees, and clerical costs. Use of the same judge, in addition,
allows an intimate support network to form among the non-cult parties, which is
essential to maintaining stamina, spirits, and morale in the face of cult
forces' continuing psychological influence. Ex-cult members leave behind both
an authoritarian structure which has dictated their lifestyles and decisions and
all the friendships and emotional attachments they have known for years. They
re-enter a world which is strange, threatening, lonely, and confusing without
the supportive reintegrative network of other former cult members.
The assignment of three Sullivanian custody cases to the
same judge proved to be a markedly effective tool. Fortunately, only a month
before the commencement of the Sullivanian cases, a massive reorganization of
litigation management took place in the New York State judicial system.
Under the new organization, known as the IAS (Individual
Assignment System), each case is assigned at the outset to one particular judge
who thereafter hears all motions, matters and evidentiary hearings, and conducts
all conferences related to the cases. Initially, cases are randomly assigned to
judges by computer. However, by attorney request or administrative decision,
cases may be assigned to a particular judge before whom other related matters
are pending. When first requesting judicial attention, an attorney is required
to indicate such other related pending cases.
The first two Sullivanian cases were assigned to the same
judge without objection from the Sullivanians. Although the actions were not
formally consolidated, the cases were combined for the purposes of the
evidentiary hearings, and most judicial conferences were also informally
When the third ex-Sullivanian parent requested assignment
to the same judge, the issue was hotly although belatedly litigated by counsel
for the Sullivanian parent. The independent parents won a substantial victory
when the administrative law judge ruled that all Sullivanian cases were to be
handled by the same judge. Finding such assignment to be of the very essence of
the IAS system, the administrative judge stated that a major benefit of the IAS
is the ability to eliminate duplication and waste of judicial resources by
assigning cases arising from the same subject matter to the same judge. He
found a sufficient legal and factual nexus among the cases to warrant assigning
the Sullivanian custody cases to the same judge.
Consolidate Actions for Hearings and Trial
An even more powerful tactic is the actual consolidation of
actions for hearing and trial. Such consolidation allows evidentiary emphasis
to be placed dramatically on the acts and attitudes of the cult. Moreover, it
enables clients to more easily bear the costs of protracted litigation by
In the Sullivanian cases, the issue of consolidation came
up twice. The first time was at the very beginning of the litigation during the
hearings on the dangerousness of the cult. Consolidation was essentially de
facto. While hearings were proceeding in regard to the confidentiality of the
mother's address in the first action, a second former cult parent was attacked,
allegedly by a member of the cult's security forces who was reputed to be a
black belt in karate. As the two cases were proceeding in tandem before the
same judge, the hearings, almost as a matter of course, came to apply to both
The attempt at consolidation was less successful the second
time. The two ex-Sullivanian fathers, who by that time were both represented by
the same attorney and were living in a house they had rented together, made a
formal motion to consolidate their trials.
In a published opinion, the New York State Supreme Court
(Walter Shackman, J.) held: "[T]he Court finds a joint trial is inappropriate.
In each case the Court is separately concerned with the psychological
environment surrounding the children as a result of the interaction between
their parents, each parent and child/children, and between the children and
significant other adults and children with whom the children interact as well as
the physical environment in which they reside.
Combining these two cases would make the Court's task of
evaluating the evidence pertaining to the individuals involved more difficult.
While the Court is cognizant of the fact that a joint trial would reduce the
fathers' cost of litigation, the Court does not believe it would result in a
more economical use of judicial resources, for it deprives the parties of the
individual attention each case warrants.
Furthermore, a joint trial might create the impression that
the court "should" or "would" decide the issues of custody and visitation
similarly, without acknowledging that the Court is concerned with two separate
family units. Having decided to have children together, these parents have
implicitly committed themselves in an ongoing relationship to each other insofar
as it relates to the best interest of their children. This relationship is now
distinct from any communal relationship the parents once shared, and must
necessarily grow to encompass the differing needs and preferences of maturing
children. The Court finds a separate trial better fosters autonomous parenting
and independent reflection upon parental guidance and the children's
Notably, this decision was reached despite the fact that
the common questions of fact were unusually great. The children did not merely
share a similar life with their mothers among the Sullivanians; they shared a
similar life with their fathers as well. The fathers shared a house with a
common living space and outdoor play space for the children, and frequently
engaged in activities together when the children resided with them. Moreover,
the judge was familiar with these arrangements and had presided over the
entirety of the three cases.
The consolidation decision perhaps exemplifies the
difficulties which may be encountered by an attorney who attempts in any sense
to "litigate against the cult" rather than exposing the cult activities which
may have detrimental to the best interests of the child.
Make Special Use of Expert Witnesses
In planning a trial strategy, attorneys should consider and
select among the multiple possible uses of psychologists, psychiatrists,
anthropologists, and sociologists as expert witnesses. Testimony by social and
behavioral scientists who have done primary research on a cult, or clinicians
who have treated former cult members and their families, can be invaluable in
providing information on the patterns of child-raising within the cult.
If such experts testify in court, caution them to
concentrate on facts about the social organization, culture, and interpersonal
dynamics in the group and about the psychological consequences of these
factors. Avoid the battle of theories that is subject to First Amendment
protection and which creates a tangle of ideologies while raising issues of
admissibility under the Frye test. As first enunciated in the case of Frye v.
United States, 293 F. 1013 (CADC 1923), the rule holds that "in admitting expert
testimony deduced from a well-recognized scientific principle or discovery, the
thing from which the deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have
gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs." The
test can be used to exclude expert testimony in the behavioral and social
sciences where the nature of academic debate often makes it impossible to meet
the "general acceptance" standard. But do elicit sufficient ethnographic detail
to assist the clinical experts in giving their testimony.
Such experts may also be helpful out of court in providing
ethnographic and theoretical information to clinical experts. The body of
scientific literature has welled to substantial proportions, and any attorney
litigating cult cases is well advised to become familiar with some of this
material whether or not its authors are to testify as expert witnesses.
The use of clinical experts must, almost necessarily, be
more extensive than in a typical matrimonial action. The usual psychiatric or
psychological evaluative consultation is done in the expert's office and
typically consists of interviews with the parents and children and observations
of parent-child interaction.
In a cult-related case this is simply not enough. The
inquiry must not end with the question of whether the parent-child relationship
is good or bad because much of the psychologically destructive quality of life
in a cult comes from the mental and psychological control exercised by the cult
leadership. The expert evaluation must include other issues such as:
who controls and directs the parent's functioning and decision-making;
who, other than the parent, disciplines and cares for the child;
how much time parents spend with their children and what is the nature of
who, other than the parents, makes decisions about the child's upbringing
and education, and what is the basis for these decisions.
Ideally, the expert witness should have a substantial
opportunity to observe the parent-child interaction in ethnographic context (at
home in the cult interacting with cult leaders and other cult members who are
significant adults in the child's life). Alternatively, the expert should have
the opportunity to testify about the effects of the cult's practices as
developed through the testimony of others or through information provided by
research-oriented experts and their scholarly works.
Enlist the Help and Support of Other Ex-Members
Individuals who had left the Sullivanians relatively
recently formed a supportive, informal "re-entry" network of friends and
associates who were in close and frequent contact with one another. The same is
true for former members of many other groups. The people in this network
provided invaluable assistance to both the litigators and the litigants.
They testified as witnesses. They provided volunteer
clerical services (helping, in a small way, to minimize the inordinate financial
discrepancies between the wealth of the cult and the budgets of the independent
parties). And, perhaps most importantly, they provided emotional and practical
support to the ex-member parent parties during the long ordeal of litigation
which, for the litigants, meant slowly and painfully breaking with and publicly
exposing a former total way of life. Non-party former cult members are a
litigation resource not to be underestimated.
This article was originally published in Cult
Observer, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1996.