|Did Dr. Phil Unwittingly Promote False Accusations on His Recent ‘Crisis in Family Court’ Show?
“Mother [Sarah Creek] has made repeated sexual abuse allegations against father [Sheldon Creek], which to date, after numerous investigations by CPS, UC Davis Medical Center, the FBI, the emergency room physician at Sutter hospital and the police, have been unsubstantiated…[6 year-old Sylvia Creek] has endured five Sexual Assault Response Team [SART] exams…None of the allegations made by [mother Sarah Creek] were substantiated at ANY time…”–Dana A, minor’s counsel [emphasis in original]
Dr. Phil did an hour long special called “Crisis in Family Court” on April 14. The view put forward both by Dr. Phil and his various guests was that mothers were losing custody of their children to abusive fathers, and that the courts were favoring fathers even when there is strong evidence that they are violent or have sexually abused their children.
The show put forward three examples--the Tagle case, the Leichtenberg case, and what we will refer to as the “Sylvia Creek” case (Dr. Phil used pseudonyms in the Sylvia Creek case, so we will do the same.)
In the Tagle case, Katie Tagle and Steven Garcia argued over parenting arrangements of their 9-month-old son Wyatt. Tagle produced emails from Garcia announcing his intention to harm their baby. Judge Robert Lemkau evidently thought the emails were fakes or had been altered to be incriminating.
The transcript of the hearing in question is here. Litigants often make these types of allegations in family court in order to drive their former spouses/partners out of their children’s lives. Apparently Lemkau believed that the Tagle case was a garden variety false allegations case. Tragically, it wasn’t–in a horrific act, Garcia shot the little boy and then himself.
In the Leichtenberg case, an abusive father committed a murder-suicide.
While Dr. Phil is correct to publicize these tragic cases, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, most parental murders of children are committed by mothers, not by fathers. Dr. Phil could have had a similar show featuring fathers whose children were murdered by the children’s mothers, at times after fathers had tried to warn courts. It is misleading to only focus on murdering fathers when there are, in fact, more mothers who kill their children than fathers.
Politically, the case central to the Dr. Phil show is the Sylvia Creek case. It involves “Stephanie,” a 17-year-old girl who is interviewed on the show and who claims that her father is abusive. Kathleen Russell of the mothers’ family court advocacy group The Center for Judicial Excellence, based in Northern-California, brought the Creek case to Dr. Phil. Russell worked closely with Dr. Phil’s producers to create and shape the April 14 “Crisis in Family Court” episode.
Russell believes that there’s a “crisis” in family courts, and that courts are handing over custody of children to physically and sexually abusive fathers. Russell and the CJE promote reforms which will make it easier to deny parents shared custody or visitation rights based on unsubstantiated abuse claims. They have also been the prime movers behind California AB 612, a bill that would exclude evidence of Parental Alienation from family law proceedings and prevent target parents of Parental Alienation from raising PA as an issue in their cases. Last year Fathers & Families’ legislative representative Michael Robinson helped build a professional coalition to scuttle AB 612.
Fathers & Families has always acknowledged that there are parents who have alienated their own children through their abuse or personality defects, and who attempt to shift the blame to their former spouses or parents by falsely claiming PA. In family law cases, false accusations of domestic violence and child sexual abuse are common–there’s no reason to believe that false accusations of Parental Alienation can’t occur also.
The CJE and other mothers’ family law advocates have put forward several cause celebre cases where, they assert, family courts have handed custody of children to abusive fathers who falsely claimed “Parental Alienation” to hide their abuse. The most well-known of these cases are the Sadia Loeliger, Genia Shockome, Holly Collins, and Joyce Murphy cases.
The Murphy case is a legitimate example of the phenomenon Russell describes. The other three are cases are being badly misrepresented by mothers’ advocates.
In the Loeliger case, it was the mother who had been found culpable of child abuse by a California juvenile court. The father got custody not due to family court machinations, as the mother’s supporters claimed, but because the juvenile court removed the little girl from the mother’s care because of the physical abuse. Loeliger was originally featured in a documentary on PBS, and the film’s producers were later forced to publicly apologize to father Scott Loeliger.
In the Shockome case, the mother’s absolute refusal to co-parent with her ex-husband led the courts–-eventually, after giving her many chances–-to transfer custody of the kids from Genia to her ex-husband. In the Collins case, the family court found, with ample evidence, that Holly Collins suffers from multiple mental disorders, including Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, and was a danger to her children. In both the Shockome, and Collins cases, the courts found, again with ample justification, that the mothers had made repeated false accusations against their children’s fathers.
The question then is where does the Creek case lie? Is it, like the Murphy case, a legitimate case of a mother protecting her children from abuse? Or did the courts act correctly, as in the Loeliger, Shockome, and Collins cases?
In the Creek case, Sarah Creek has repeatedly accused father Sheldon Creek of sexually abusing their daughter. Stephanie Creek, Sheldon’s daughter from a previous marriage, told Dr. Phil:
[W]hen I was four, he made me do inappropriate things to him. And that–I only remember it happening once, and I tend to block things out that I don’t want to remember. And then from there it got a little bit more physical as I grew up. And then after about seven, it was verbal and emotional abuse the rest of my life.
Stephanie also echoes the claim that Sylvia is being sexually abused by Sheldon.
Sheldon says “in 2008, Stephanie had the sudden recall that she was abused several days prior to the February 14 & 15, 2008 custody trial between Sarah and I regarding Sylvia.” Sheldon believes that Stephanie is being manipulated by both of his ex-wives, each of whom he says have tried to alienate his children from him. He also claims that he had a good relationship with Stephanie until the past couple years, when she was brought into these cases. Creek has produced some credible evidence to support both of these claims, and it is possible that Stephanie’s accusations are the result of these alienation attempts.
The Creek case is long and complicated, with accusations being made by each side. However, all sides on the dispute--Kathleen Russell and the Center for Judicial Excellence, Sarah Creek, Sheldon Creek, Dr. Phil, myself, and numerous others--would agree with the presiding judge Thomas A. Smith when he wrote:
Over the last four years since their separation, [Sheldon and Sarah] have appeared in court numerous times to litigate the issue of custody and visitation of their daughter Sylvia…The single most contentious issue involves Sarah’s accusations of molest of Sylvia by Sheldon.
Thus we will focus on this one crucial element–did Sheldon sexually abuse Sylvia? Sarah Creek, Kathleen Russell, and the other mothers’ advocates are certain that he has. However, I’ve reviewed the documents in the case and have found that there are numerous problems with the version of events put forward by Creek and her supporters. Below I list and discuss some of them.
The cast of characters (with pseudonyms) is as follows:
Sheldon Creek--father of 6-year-old Sylvia Creek and 17-year-old Stephanie Creek
Sarah Creek--mother of 6-year-old Sylvia Creek
Sylvia Creek--Sheldon & Sarah’s 6 year-old daughter. Sheldon has custody of Sylvia
Stephanie Creek--Sheldon’s 17-year-old daughter from his first marriage. She lives with her mother and is estranged from Sheldon
Dana A.--minor’s counsel for Sylvia
Linda Falcon--Sylvia Creek’s therapist
Don Yarborough--Mediator in Sheldon-Sarah case
Sean Jackson, PhD--Custody evaluator in Sheldon-Sarah case
Judge Thomas A. Smith--presiding judge in Sheldon-Sarah case
Problem #1–Sylvia Creek has been examined for possible child sexual abuse on 5 separate occasions, and not one of the examinations has substantiated any of the charges
Minor’s counsel Dana A, who represents Sylvia Creek, wrote in her 2/24/09 report:
"Mother [Sarah Creek] has made repeated sexual abuse allegations against father [Sheldon Creek], which to date, after numerous investigations by CPS, UC Davis Medical Center, the FBI, the emergency room physician at Sutter hospital and the police, have been unsubstantiated…[6 year-old Sylvia Creek] has endured five Sexual Assault Response Team [SART] exams…None of the allegations made by [mother Sarah Creek] were substantiated at ANY time..."
Problem #2 Child Protective Services has repeatedly investigated accusations against Sheldon Creek, and has never substantiated any of them.
Child Protective Services has received eight reports of child sexual abuse made by Sarah Creek against Sheldon Creek. All eight were found to be either “unfounded” or inconclusive.
Problem #3: Custody evaluator Sean Jackson, PhD did not believe that Sheldon Creek had molested his daughter
Custody evaluator Sean Jackson, PhD wrote in his report that he did not believe that Sheldon had molested his daughter. Appropriately, he suggested that Sheldon examine why he chose to marry and have kids with a woman who would make false allegations against him.
Problem #4: Sheldon Creek passed an FBI polygraph examination concerning the molestation allegations
The FBI polygraph examiner asked Sheldon Creek if he ever touched Sylvia for a sexual purpose and whether Sylvia ever touched him for a sexual purpose. His response for both these questions was “no,” and the polygraph examiner concluded that Creek’s “recorded responses were not indicative of deception.”
Problem #5 The assertion that Sylvia Creek is being sexually abused and is experiencing great trauma is contradicted by the report of Sylvia Creek’s therapist Linda Falcon
Sylvia Creek’s therapist Linda Falcon reported that little Sylvia “was adjusting as a normal child going through a divorce…Toward the end of treatment [Sylvia] began to report that she felt her mom did not want her to like her dad and she was saying mean things about him…[I did not] observe any indications of sexual or physical abuse…”
Problem #6: The assertion that Sylvia Creek is being sexually abused and is experiencing great trauma is contradicted by minor’s [Sylvia Creek] counsel Dana A., Esq. and Sylvia’s teachers and other professionals involved in the case
Minor’s [Sylvia Creek] counsel Dana A., Esq., in her March 3, 2009 report, writes:
“Based on my observations, Sylvia’s development is normal in all areas: mental, emotional and physical. This is also consistent with the determination of every professional or teacher that has interviewed her or come in contact with her through pre-school and primary school. She is not shy or withdrawn as one would expect from a child that is being abused. But most important to me, is that Sylvia is not hesitant toward either parent. She interacts very well and is clearly bonded to both parents. I am basing my recommendations for Sylvia on the findings I made from my own observations, conversations and review of reports…”
Problem #7: Mediator Don Yarborough doesn’t believe the molestation accusations.
Mediator Don Yarborough doesn’t believe that Sheldon Creek had molested his daughter. He also stated that Sarah Creek “intimidates everyone with the fear of bringing charges against their license, [charges] that they would have to defend.”
Problem #8: Angela R., MD examined Sylvia on 8/27/07 and found no evidence of sexual abuse
Angela R., MD of the Children’s Specialists Medical Group examined Sylvia on 8/27/07 over a sexual abuse allegation. Dr. R. did not find any evidence of sexual abuse, but said that her findings were consistent with bacterial vulvovaginitis which she said was “likely caused by poor hygiene common to this age group.” Her recommendation was “warm water baths daily or twice daily as needed.”
Problem #9: Sylvia was examined at the Sutter Hospital Emergency Room on 8/3/05 and no evidence of sexual abuse was found.
Doctors found that Sylvia had a bacterial infection, for which she was prescribed Bactrim.
Problem #10: Sylvia was examined by Sutter Hospital on 2/14/07 and no evidence of sexual abuse was found.
Doctors found that Sylvia was not in any pain and had a bacterial infection, for which she was prescribed Bactrim.
Problem #11: Sylvia was examined at UC Davis on 8-22/23/06 and on 12/24/07 and again no evidence of sexual abuse was found.
Problem #12: Presiding judge Thomas A. Smith concluded that the molestation charges were false, and noted that "psychological evaluations concluded Sylvia was coached to report incidents of sexual and physical abuse"
In his custody order of 3/10/09, Presiding judge Thomas A. Smith wrote:
Sheldon denies ever touching Sylvia in an inappropriate manner. He testified it is nearly impossible to prove the negative but he offered evidence that no criminal charges or child dependency actions have been filed against him despite numerous investigations by such agencies as the local child protective services, the County Sheriffs Department, the Sutter Creek Police Department, the FBI, and the UC Medical Center. Sutter Creek Police Department Sgt Ken P. testified he participated in two SART exams and two psychological interviews of Sylvia. Both SART exams were negative and the psychological evaluations concluded Sylvia was coached to report incidents of sexual and physical abuse.
Sarah has failed to…present evidence from any medical doctor in support of her contentions. To the contrary, the evidence supports the conclusion Sylvia suffers from a lack of proper hygiene and suffers from chronic vaginal infections and rashes unrelated to molest.
Problem # 13: Presiding judge Thomas A. Smith agrees with Sheldon Creek’s contention that “Anytime a hearing/trial is scheduled, it is almost a guarantee that in the weeks or months prior, Sarah will make an accusation of abuse.”
In his custody order of 3/10/09, Presiding judge Thomas A. Smith wrote:
After a review of the entire file, it appears Sheldon is correct in his impression that Sarah brings up new issues of alleged molest just before scheduled court custody hearings. For this reason, the court questions Sarah’s sincerity in making these serious allegations. The court finds Sarah has engaged in a course of conduct designed to alienate Sylvia from her father. Fortunately Sylvia’s psychological well-being, according to Dr. J. is “normal,” but this court finds that Sylvia’s relationship with Sheldon is at risk if Sarah is allowed to continue to coach Sylvia in an attempt to alienate her from her father.
Creek Case Conclusion
Given the evidence in this case, it would be hard to conclude that Sheldon is/was molesting his daughter. The enormous amount of time and care that social services and the family court have devoted to examining the sexual abuse allegations and the evidence in general belie the mothers’ advocates' contention that courts are biased against mothers or are turning their backs on children abused by their fathers. Five separate sexual abuse examinations failed to find any support for the accusations--how many more should they have been expected to conduct?
Moreover, it is abusive to subject poor little Sylvia Creek to these repeated exams and to have her mother trying to convince her that she has been sexually abused. As the child’s counsel noted:
[T]o subject my client to repeated examinations that all come back as unfounded at some point becomes psychologically damaging and a form of maltreatment. Neither CPS nor the police have confirmed any of the allegations…the repeated allegations of sexual abuse by [Sarah Creek] are psychologically damaging to, and amount to maltreatment of my client.
Did Dr. Phil Find a ‘Crisis in Family Court’?
Dr. Phil highlighted three cases. In two, a father murdered his children, which is terrible but Dr. Phil could have just as easily reported on two cases where a mother murdered her children. In the other case, Dr. Phil alleges that a family court has given custody to a child molester, yet the evidence is strong that this is not a molestation case, and the court certainly did not award custody in the case capriciously or without a thorough investigation.
In the end, what evidence of a family court crisis does Dr. Phil and the mothers’ family court advocates who worked with him have? Very little.–Glenn Sacks, 4/27/10
Attention Ohio F & F Supporters
| Fathers & Families has recently learned of an Ohio bill which will raise child support levels significantly--this in the middle of a recession. If you are in Ohio or have ties to Ohio and are interested in getting involved in opposing/learning more about this child support increase, please fill out our volunteer form here.
F & F Legislative Update
|F & F Helps Amend CA. SB 1266 to Include Both Mothers and Fathers
California SB 1266 (Liu Inmates: alternative custody) is a prison reform bill designed to help protect the loving bonds mothers who are nonviolent offenders share with their children. According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest:
This bill would authorize the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to offer a program under which female inmates, pregnant individuals, and or inmates who, immediately prior to incarceration, were primary caregivers of dependent children, as defined, who are committed to state prison may be allowed to participate in a voluntary alternative custody program in lieu of confinement in state prison.
Fathers & Families’ legislative representative Michael Robinson has been working with the staffers of various state senators to get the bill amended to include custodial fathers as well as custodial mothers. The bill, with Fathers & Families’ amendments, has now passed out of the Senate Public Safety Committee. Our amendments include Section G, where “mothers” is changed to “parents” and the following language is added:
The bill would define an alternative custody program to include confinement to a residential home, a residential drug or treatment program, or a transitional care facility during the hours designated by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Research also demonstrates that a father’s involvement in his child’s life greatly improves the child’s chances for success. Helping incarcerated fathers foster stronger connections with their children, where appropriate, can have positive effects for children. Strong family connections help to ensure that fathers stay out of prison once they are released.
Fathers & Families’ official support letter can be seen here.