New Documentary By BU Professor Tackles Flawed Family Court System

By Lauren Michael | Dec 5th, 2011

Poster for 'No Way Out But One.' | Photo courtesy of Garland Waller and Barry Nolan

In 1992, Holly Collins went to a Minnesota family court intending to secure full custody of her two children, Zackary and Jennifer. She had believed that if she told the truth–that her ex-husband had repeatedly abused her and their children–everything would be okay. But her evidence of abuse, including several medical records and the children’s statements that they always feared visiting their dad, were repeatedly rejected by the court. Her husband claimed she was lying and trying to alienate their children from him. Then, like thousands of battered women each year, Holly lost full custody of her children to their abusive father.

After two years with limited supervised visitation, in which the children weren’t permitted to discuss the ongoing abuse, Holly decided to do something. One day, she asked her kids to meet her at a video store near their dad’s house. They got into a car and started driving. They tried going to Canada, Mexico and Guatemala. Knowing the FBI was searching for them because Holly had in fact kidnapped her kids, she decided to try escaping to Australia or New Zealand. They managed to sneak through airport security without passports and got onto a flight to Amsterdam. There, they were detained and sent to a refugee camp. Years later upon finding a lawyer willing to take her case, Holly became the first U.S. citizen to be granted asylum by the Netherlands on the grounds of domestic violence.

For COM Professor Garland Waller, Holly Collins’ story was the perfect outlet for her to make a documentary on the shortcomings of the American family court system. “My first documentary was about three women who all lost custody of their kids to men who had battered them and sexually abused them,” she said to me when I interviewed her last Thursday. The documentary was never aired for the public, however, because people considered it way too controversial.

“I thought, I know this is an issue that is going on in the family courts, every single day,” Professor Waller explicated. “How can we do a story on this issue of domestic violence and child abuse that people will want to see; that will have a story that has a beginning, middle, and end; that has a hero; and that doesn’t make them feel suicidal at the end?” That’s why she decided to center her film around Holly’s story. ”Holly is one of the few women who has been able to save her children from years of being abused,” she affirmed.

On December 2 at 7pm in COM 101, Professor Waller and her production team screened the filmNo Way Out But One for a packed lecture hall of students and faculty. The hour-and-a-half long documentary, which was followed by a Q&A session, follows Holly’s story and also outlines the grievous problems 0f the American family court system. Made for under $40,000, the not-for-profit film was a way for Professor Waller and her husband Barry Nolan (who also produced and narrated the film) to make a difference.

“This is what I do to give back,” she explained. “Some people work for charity, some people give to the United Way, but this is what I do.”

As the documentary cites, each year 58,000 children are placed in contact with an abuse parent after divorce, and batterers win custody in 70% of family court cases where abuse is involved.

Holly Collins with her children outside the refugee camp in the Netherlands. | Photo courtesy of Garland Waller and Barry Nolan

As lawyer and co-excecutive producer Toby Kleinman explained in the Q&A, the family court system and the criminal court system operate under very different motives. Whereas criminal courts are designed to find the guilty party beyond a reasonable doubt, family courts want to be fair to each party involved. “They assume everyone is lying,” Kleinman said. She also explained that when batterers come in calmly and wearing three-piece suits, and then the subjects of their abuse come in emotional and distraught, it’s easy for the judge to peg the father as “normal” and the mother as “unbalanced.”

Professor Waller also cited the lingering gender bias in the family courts. “Courts do not have to consider domestic violence in their rulings, ” she said. “Now that is anti-woman, because it’s usually the women who get beaten up.” Money, she says, is also involved. “The men who want custody are the ones who can afford to have the kids, and you have to be able to pay the court costs,” she explained. “This is something that doesn’t happen in poor families…it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all these people.” If the father is paying for the court evaluator, she says, often they’ll skew the evidence in his favor.

But even in ugly divorces, she says, usually the parents still want to do what’s best for their children. “When there are cases that involve domestic violence and child abuse, that is not the case,” she explained. “Women often get custody when there’s not domestic violence. But oddly, a batterer is more likely to go after custody than a non-batterer. So its a very complicated issue.”

Since the release of No Way Out But One, Professor Waller and her husband deal with angry father’s rights groups every day. These groups, like Fathers and Families, make an impassioned–if not entirely factual–argument for why they believe the Holly Collins case is a hoax. “After a nice review in a Boston Magazine blog, many pro-father’s rights men were highly critical,” she explained, but “none of them had seen the film and none of them had access to all the thousands of pages of legal documents and medical records and correspondence from experts and FBI documents that we had.” Many of these documents are shown and quoted in the film.

In their writings against Holly Collins, father’s rights groups cite Parental Alienation Syndrome, which means that a mother is trying to alienate her children from their father. Though it is not accepted as a legitimate diagnosis by the American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association (the psychologist who first wrote about PAS had conducted no actual studies), in family court it is often used to legitimize giving custody to an abusive parent.

Professor Waller with Holly Collins, Jennifer Collins, and Barry Nolan

L to R: Jennifer Collins, Barry Nolan, Professer Waller, and Holly Collins. | Photo courtesy of Jessie Beers Altman

As Nolan puts it, “these are people who do not and will not respond to evidence, or facts, or medical records, or court transcripts, or expert testimony if it does not fit their preconceived notions.” The groups say that Holly fabricated the evidence of her husband’s abuse, but in reality false allegations of abuse are very rare.

“Holly may not be perfect, but she was clearly a battered woman who only wanted to protect her children from abuse,” Professor Waller affirmed.

Still, this is an issue that has mainly been ignored by the mainstream media. “The mainstream media is terrified of getting sued, and this is a subject where everybody sues everyone all the time,” she explained. “It’s all he said/she said…so the mainstream media says, this is a mess and we’re not going to get into it. Just as the mainstream media did not cover pedophile priests abusing children, just as for years they did not cover the things that were going on at Penn State, it is the same thing only worse by thousands in terms of the children who are being abused.”

Many years after their mother kidnapped them, the Collins kids, now adults, are healthy and grateful for everything their mother has done for them. Jennifer Collins, Holly’s oldest daughter, is the executive director of Courageous Kids, an organization for young adults who suffered from court injustice as children to speak out and share their stories.

“I guess for me, the most important thing is that I would like people to realize that this is a national issue that is not going away until people begin to understand that in a family court, if you beat your wife and abuse your child, and go after custody, most of the time you will get it,” Professor Waller concluded. “I want to live in an America that protects the children.”

For more information about the film, go to