Rhode Island taxpayers have contributed an enormous sum to wage a war that most of us know nothing about. The systems our state established to protect children have instead subjected many to danger and trauma that will profoundly shape the rest of their lives. Who will help to build public awareness and political consensus to protect children from those who prey on them or who profit from their abuse? How should government respond in ways that are transparent and accountable?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Why did Lise Iwon do it?

The October 2003 issue of The Rhode Island Monthly featured three guardians ad litem (“at law”) in an article called “The Guardians.”[1]

Guardians ad litem often enter a custody case when both parents request a neutral person to represent their children’s “best interests.” But neutrality is rare when a small circle of Family Court lawyers and clinicians rely on friendships and referrals within this closed shop. Free of competition, lax in their rules, and often shielded by confidentiality, they can charge astounding fees in a pay-to-play system that becomes more profitable if it can be stretched out until a child’s 18th birthday.

Since 1996, I have coordinated the Parenting Project, an entirely volunteer effort to research and respond to these disturbing custody cases. We interview people, observe hearings, and study documents from courts, clinicians, children, parents, and the larger community. We analyze how the system works and what reforms are needed. Our goal is to repair a failing government system that traumatizes many families, especially children.

In summer 2006, an op-ed I wrote on the so-called “Parental Alienation Syndrome” [2] brought phone calls from a small town where two young sisters had disappeared amid charges that their mother had “alienated” them against their father. Neighbors denied this allegation and asked the Parenting Project to investigate the case.

By that time, Lise Iwon (above right) had been appointed guardian ad litem even though her close friend Lise Gescheidt was the criminal defense attorney for the girls’ father, who had been indicated by a DCYF investigator for allegedly molesting 3-year-old “Molly” in 2003.

The father’s earliest defense strategy came with photos suggesting that his own father might have molested Molly, for the grandfather had sexually abused his three children. After he became a psychotherapist, he went to prison twice for sex crimes against young patients.

Molly allegedly insisted it was not her grandfather, but her father who molested her. She drew, described, and acted out her complaints about the days when they were home alone.

Her father’s next line of defense was to blame his wife for “alienating” the children against him. Gescheidt brought in private investigator Patricia Azarian to find people who would agree with the father that his wife was “jealous” and “resentful” of him, hoping to sway the administrative hearing officer at DCYF who would rule on the father’s appeal.

DCYF had contracted with private attorney Norbara Octeau to serve as administrative hearing officer though she lacked credentials to rule on child sex abuse cases. In her December 2004 decision exonerating him, Octeau agreed with the father’s theory that his wife had caused “what he termed Parental Alienation Syndrome.”[3]

Though Octeau never met or questioned the man’s wife, she found the woman “highly unorthodox and rather suspicious.” Octeau concluded: “This maternal behavior casts a shadow over the reliability of the child’s statements.”[4]

Psychologist John Parsons examined the family from June to September 2004.[5] But he waited for Octeau’s December 2004 decision, which he used with other reports to complete his January 2005 evaluation, incorporating the same multiple levels of hearsay that Octeau had repeated from the father’s private investigator. Parsons harmonized his views with those and dismissed many troubling comments he had quoted from the girls and their father.[6] Considering the way his conclusions relied on other people’s reports, it seemed ironic that Parsons stopped the girls from seeing their therapists for fear that might contaminate his results.

Lise Iwon entered the case as guardian ad litem in March 2005. Though her role should have been neutral, she made no secret of her teamwork with the defense. Throughout the case, Iwon huddled with the father, his lawyers and DCYF staff, poring over documents in courthouse alcoves.

Attorney Lise Gescheidt defended not only her client, the father, but also her friend, Lise Iwon. Gescheidt accused the mother of introducing motions that “slander the professional reputation of a unbiased guardian ad litem who has consistently acted in the best interest of the children without meaningful compensation….”[7]

When I began researching the case from court files in 2006, the mother provided complete access to family documents and photos. In 2007, my testimony on the case before legislative committees prompted the judge to seal both the divorce and DCYF files, shrouding the case in a gag order.

By then, we had secured all the documents cited here. These show a court record riddled with hearsay and conflicts of interest. From what I could see, the father’s lawyers, DCYF lawyers, and the guardian ad litem appeared to be working in concert to distract attention from Molly’s original complaints against her father and to focus on her father’s campaign of vilification against his wife.

Lise Iwon is a shrewd lawyer, in line to become president of the Rhode Island Bar Association. Before researching this case, I had admired her, in part because I thought she was a progressive.

One early accomplishment of hers occurred on December 4, 1991, when she cross-examined the Family Court’s best known “gun-for-hire,” a term lawyers use for psychotherapists willing to testify in custody courts on behalf of whichever parent pays them.

Psychologist Brian Hayden had reported using Barry Bricklin’s “Perceptual Scale,” to test a five-year-old’s “perceptions of each parent’s skill as a parent.”[8]

Iwon’s questions extracted Hayden’s admission that Bricklin’s test was never scientifically proven to be either valid or reliable and that 75% of the time it favored the “same parent who hired the doctor to administer the test.”[9]

Iwon had skillfully exposed the absurd overreaching of much “forensic psychology” and its recent popularity in custody courts. Ironically that’s the tool she used fifteen years later to remove Molly and Sara from their home and mother on April 7, 2006, when they were 5 and 9 years old, under the pretext that this would be a “temporary” removal for a brief psychiatric evaluation.

Police and DCYF staff went to their schools and took the girls to the first of their foster homes that eventually led to a state shelter where the sisters could not eat together or share the same room.

By separating Molly from her mother and older sister, DCYF attempted to force Molly to recant her accusations against her father in order to “reunite” the child with him. Indeed, Tom Dwyer, then associate director of child welfare at DCYF, informed me that Molly “wants to be with him”--just before they delivered the 7-year-old to her father in August 2007.

The sisters’ year in a state shelter easily cost taxpayers $60,000 in addition to Sara’s two and a half years in foster homes and thousands of hours wasted by state employees and contractors who had been told that the mother had “mental problems.” It was a lie.

Why did Lise Iwon do it?

We may never know why Lise Iwon handled her responsibilities this way. But I suspect it may have been the same three reasons that run like a virus through many domestic violence custody cases: cash, cabal, and creed. Those who examine custody cases should be attuned to all three.


Iwon’s October 26, 2005, guardian ad litem report on Molly and Sara was slapdash and full of hearsay. She appears to have made no pretense at fulfilling the standards set forth in the training manual, Guardian ad Litem Practice in Rhode Island, that she had helped to write and teach in 2004.

She charged $200 an hour in this case: $1,000 for her single visit to the family’s home, including $400 for time in her car sporting the vanity plate I WON. By April 2006, the girls’ father had paid her over $7,300. Iwon demanded nearly $5,000 more from their mother, who could not pay.

Three days later, Iwon went to court to remove the girls, even trying to prevent their mother from saying good-bye. For that day alone, Iwon added $1,200 to her bill.

Eventually Iwon’s bill would be about $50,000—much of it for time spent seeking and instructing clinicians in a legal stratagem called “parental alienation.”

New Jersey psychiatrist Richard Gardner developed "Parental Alienation Syndrome" around 1985. He advised that sex between adults and children is natural and lobbied against mandatory reporting of child sex abuse. [10] He advanced his ideas through self-publishing and courtroom testimony in hundreds of child custody cases until his suicide in 2003.

Psychologist Barry Bricklin, whose “Perceptual Scale” had embarrassed Brian Hayden under Iwon’s questioning in 1991, became an avid promoter of Gardner’s “parental alienation.”[11]


When DCYF subpoenaed me to testify in the closed courtroom on September 7, 2007, Iwon sat with the father’s defense team in the farthest possible seat from the girls’ mother. Not even pretending to be neutral, Iwon identified herself in itemized invoices as a member of what she called the “team,” which she took to its next level by searching for clinicians who would deliver the products that the team needed in court.

She charged $2,400 for her work with licensed clinical social worker Haven Miles, who reported in horrifying detail how she had forcibly “reunited” Molly with her father, even though Miles acknowledged she could not be certain whether he had actually molested the child.[12]

Iwon sought out psychologist Brian Hayden, who met with the older sister for several months. Instead of reinforcing Iwon’s theory, he rejected it unequivocally. Hayden insisted there was nothing sinister about this mother. In fact he praised her as “cooperative, polite,” “articulate, caring,” and “witty.”[13] His report showed this daughter had genuine fear of her father, and Hayden concluded: “I could discern no intent or actions of her mother to influence” the daughter.[14]

Iwon stopped Hayden’s work on the case and turned to Nancy Harper, MD, a Fellow at the Child Protection Program of Hasbro Hospital. From March 27th to April 7th, 2006, Iwon added $1,750 to her bill in a marathon effort to produce yet another lengthy derivative document maligning the mother, repeating the same hearsay from Iwon, Azarian, Octeau, Parsons, Miles, and others while ignoring actual records of the 5-year-old doing and saying things that caused concern to nurses and teachers. Harper accused the mother of “having a toxic effect on the children”[15] and rushed her report to Iwon without getting her supervisor’s signature.

In Iwon’s hands, Harper’s report succeeded in removing the girls from their mother. The process of “reuniting” them with their father would take longer. DCYF could not expunge its original sexual molestation finding against him for three years—late in 2007.

For that, Lise Iwon went to Boston. DCYF director Patricia Martinez told me she had authorized “up to $30,000” (half to be paid by each parent) for a psychiatric analysis of the family. In Boston, Iwon instructed Bernice Kelly, PsyD, MS, RN, at the Law and Psychiatry service of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. In each of her reports, the psychotherapist wrote that Iwon had raised the question “about the possibility of parental alienation.”[16]

Bernice Kelly proceeded to list the “eight primary symptoms” set forth by Gardner,[17] never realizing that the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges had warned half a year before that this theory does not meet evidentiary standards and should be “ruled inadmissible and/or stricken from the evaluation report.”[18]

Kelly’s colleague, psychiatrist James Beck interviewed each of the girls’ parents and found no evidence of mental disorder in either. He noted that the mother’s “narrative about the alleged sexual abuse is filled with the kind of facts that, in other cases, I have tended to accept as evidence that what is claimed did occur. I have found it difficult in the past to believe that people are able to make up this much concrete detail.” He even acknowledged that “psychiatrists … have no special expertise in detecting lying.”[19]

But Beck accused the mother of a “highly idealized” view of her own childhood while concluding that the father had “compensated well” for his early abuse. The doctor was not as troubled by the father’s “history of gender dysphoria” as he was by his impression that the mother who had lost custody of her children was “a woman on a mission.” Evading the question at the heart of it all, the psychiatrist concluded that he was “glad that others with access to the children, as well as to the parents, have made a determination of the allegations in this case.”[20]

The ease with which Iwon persuaded clinicians to overlook their uncertainties and affirm her hypothesis would seem ludicrous if the court were not so reliant on these “expert” opinions. One judge assured me that the role of the expert is essential in custody cases, for judges have no special training in these matters.

Bernice Kelly’s promotion of “parental alienation” and James Beck’s accommodation to it appear at odds with directors of the Children and the Law Program in Massachusetts General Hospital’s psychiatry department. Andrew Clark, MD, Medical Director, and Robin M. Deutsch, PhD, Director of Forensic Services, have joined other national leaders in opposition to adding Richard Gardner’s hypothesis to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. [21]


By promoting the discredited theory of “parental alienation,” Lise Iwon allied herself with the most radical advocates for fathers’ supremacy. I wondered if she might merely be sympathetic with the girl’s father, a childhood victim of incest who had gender-identity struggles.

As chair of the former Women’s Resource Center of South County, Iwon presided over its name-change to the Domestic Violence Resource Center of South County, underscoring the agency’s services to male victims of intimate abuse.

But notions of “parental alienation” and concern about gender issues may have been less compelling for Iwon than the umbrage she takes at Roman Catholicism.

After the initial DCYF finding of sexual molestation forced the girls’ father to leave home in January 2004, the children and their mother began attending church—something he had abhorred. The Catholic Church in their rural town has a group of conservative activists who instantly embraced the mother and daughters. When DCYF and the Family Court removed the girls from their mother 26 months later, these friends started the first wave of letter-writing and fundraising. They convened a community meeting and flew in Richard Ducote, a lawyer who had defended children in dozens of other states. They sought help from the Parenting Project.

During months of drawn-out Family Court hearings, these neighbors faithfully traveled to court with the mother. They paced the marble corridors praying their rosaries like groups have done in demonstrations against Planned Parenthood and gay rights. The similarity would not have been lost on Iwon.

Just six days after “Molly” and “Sara” were taken from their mother, Lise Iwon faced her own bereavement when her good friend Julie Pell died of cancer. Both had been active in causes that I, too, strongly support.

At Pell’s memorial service, Iwon recalled those struggles and recounted their first meeting in 1986:
It was one of the first years the gay rights bill was introduced. We entered the Statehouse where we were all testifying. It was like being at some horrible camp or prison. We were stuck in this hot, cramped place for a really long time subject to intense questions and testimony. We were surrounded by really strange, scary people. And time just dragged on and on. There were bad, really bad, backroom deals going on. And our consciences were shocked. We were personally attacked. It was an intense bonding experience.

Iwon went on to tell of the 1994 "riot" in the Statehouse rotunda:
We were surrounded by anti-gay religious zealots with huge, offensive signs. Julie signaled the riot by setting off a bullhorn. We all followed by blowing whistles and the noise was absolutely deafening. The troopers stormed in, the Christians fled, and I think Julie got stomped on by a state trooper. . . . But we weren’t leaving. No way. We were resolved. [22]

While I value Iwon’s candor in relating that tumultuous encounter, her passion shows one of the reasons she may have lacked the objectivity essential in a guardian ad litem committed to protecting children.

A related sentiment showed up in the online essays of Attorney Norbara Octeau, the administrative hearing officer contracted by DCYF who had overturned the finding against the girls’ father in 2004. In 2007, I found two online essays Octeau had written appealing to fathers to hire her as their divorce attorney. She derided stereotypes of motherhood by evoking an image that Catholics will recognize as their veneration of the Holy Mother:

“It is amazing,” Octeau wrote:
...in today’s modern society that many women revert to touting their traditional roles of cooking, cleaning, laundry and being the tender hands of motherhood to elevate their argument to a pedestal of holy motherhood.[23]
In a later article she mocked “the pedestal which still elicits a knee-jerk reaction to the hallowed image of mother and child.”[24]

Attorney Norbara Octeau and her mother together at Summer Solstice in 2013, nine years after her Decision as a contracted Administrative Hearing Officer for DCYF propelled the defense strategy to take Molly and Sara from their mother into state care and eventually give them to their father's sole custody in another state. 

Breaking through stereotypes, seeking justice

Iwon’s apparent bias, her piling up of hearsay to vilify the mother, her inaccurate portrayal of their home, her failure to interview scores of people who had firsthand knowledge of the family, her deliberate dismissal of experts who disagreed with her—I believe this evidence illustrates severe shortcomings in Rhode Island’s system of child protection.

The reversals of Lise Iwon and Brian Hayden in this case marked a new awareness for me. Victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, along with their advocates, can no longer claim that an “old boys’ club” at Family Court ridicules the concerns of protective mothers. Many professional women have joined that club and are building their careers as domestic violence deniers.

As a retired pastor and former executive director of Rhode Island’s largest and oldest shelter for battered women and their children, I have worked closely with scores of mothers—some good, some bad, and many in the middle. The mother in this case is extraordinarily good. The drumbeat of vilification against her focuses full attention on the worst failures in our system.

I have written more about the case in other places, including a little picture book called, Spontaneous!
and in later publications, such as a chapter in
and an article in

Anne Grant, ParentingProject@verizon.net

As always, if I have made any errors in this account, I welcome corrections at parentingproject@ verizon.net
--Anne Grant

[1] M.E.Reilly-McGreen, “The Guardians,” The Rhode Island Monthly (Oct. 2003), 54 ff., photo by Dana Smith.

[2] Anne Grant, “Family Court Devastation: Discredited ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’,”
Providence Journal (June 27, 2006) B5.

[3] Norbara L . Octeau, “Decision,” DCYF Administrative Hearing AH/04-55 (stamped Dec. 20, 2004) 14.

[4] Octeau, 20.

[5] Lise M. Iwon, “Guardian ad Litem’s First Report,” October 26, 2005: 3.

[6] John P. Parsons, PhD, “Psychological Assessment/Sexual Offender Evaluation,” January 8, 2005 (incorrectly marked 2004).

[7] Lise J. Gescheidt, “Objection to Mother’s Motion to Allow Further Evaluations of Minor Children,” Juvenile Case No 2006-0882-01, 2006-0882-02, April 13, 2007: 4.

[8] Brian Hayden, PhD, “Psychotherapy Summary,” (F.C. File No. W88-0590), Oct. 28, 1991: 2.

[9] Partial Transcript (F.C. No. W88-0590), Dec. 4, 1991: 53.

[10] Stephanie J. Dallam, “Dr. Richard Gardner, A Review of His Theories and Opinions on Atypical Sexuality, Pedophilia, and Treatment Issues,” (2005). http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/res/dallam/2.html
Joan S. Meier, “Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: Research Reviews,” Applied Research Forum (Jan. 2009) http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/docs/VAWnet.pdf
The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, “Overview of Dr. Richard Gardner’s Opinions on Pedophilia and Child Sexual Abuse” (2005). http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/RAG.html

[11] On December 1, 2009, the Federal Trade Commission promulgated new rules to stop the “false, misleading and unsubstantiated claims” that Bricklin and others were making for the mail-order “Rotation Diet” he had developed in 1985--a year after his “Perceptual Scale,” and at the same time that Gardner was perfecting his “Parental Alienation Syndrome.”

[12] Haven Miles, MSW, LICSW, “Summary of Contacts, Parent-Child Assessment,” Nov.
28, 2005: 4-5.

[13] Brian Hayden, PhD, “Psychological Evaluation,” Jan. 5, 2006: 1.

[14] Hayden 3-4.

[15] Nancy S. Harper, MD, Fellow, Child Protection Program, 1676-86-32 AC 000110906231, April 5, 2006: 13.

[16] Bernice Kelly, PsyD, MS, RN, “Status Report” (N20040106),” Oct. 22, 2006: 2. Kelly noted Iwon’s concern about “parental alienation” in her subsequent reports on Jan. 11, 2007: 2 and March 6, 2007: 2.

[17] Bernice Kelly, “Status Report” (N20040106),” January 11, 2007: 6.

[18] National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Navigating Custody & Visitation Evaluations in Cases with Domestic Violence: A Judge’s Guide, 2006: 24. NCJFCJ's spiral book with laminated "bench cards" to assist judges describes the same process I believe Iwon used in this case, even highlighting the term in their Guide: “One common flaw in reports prepared by custody evaluators…is 'confirmatory bias'…. When the evaluator develops a hypothesis—forms an opinion about some issue in the case—early in his or her process, finds data to support it, confirms the hypothesis, and then stops testing it against new or different data…,” 25. These cautions are repeated in NCJFCJ's A Judicial Guide to Child Safety in Custody Cases (2009), available online at

[19] James Beck, MD, as cited by Bernice Kelly, PsyD, MS, RN, “Status Report,” March 6, 2007: 4-5.

[20] Beck, cited by Kelly: 5.

[21] Janet R. Johnston, PhD, and Joan B. Kelly, PhD, et al, letter to Daniel Pine, MD, Chairman of the Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence Work Group for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, October 12, 2009.

[22] Quoted from “Gay Rights Leader Julie Pell Remembered” by Peter Cassels, Edge Boston, Thursday Apr 20, 2006: http://www.edgeboston.com/index.php?ci=108&ch=news&sc=glbt&sc2=news&sc3=&id=11760

[23] Norbara L . Octeau & Christopher A . Pearsall, Rhode Island Divorce Lawyer Tips for
You–Are the Rhode Island Family Courts against Fathers? http://www .rhodeislanddivorce-
tips .com/2007/02/rhode_islanddi_12 .html . Mr. Pearsall’s name was later removed from this posting, and another article by Octeau was substituted. Both articles reveal similar hostility to mothers.

[24] Norbara L . Octeau, “DCYF Children Abuse/Are the Rhode Island Family Courts against fathers?”
(Feb . 20, 2007), http://rhodeislanddivorcetips .typepad .com/dcyf_children_abuse/2007/02/
are_the_rhode_i .html


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About the Author & Purpose

Parenting Project is a volunteer community service provided since 1996 by Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, Providence, RI, to focus on the needs of children at risk in Family Court custody cases. The coordinator, Anne Grant, is a retired United Methodist minister and former executive director of Rhode Island's largest shelter and service agency for battered women and their children. We research and write about official actions that endanger children and the parents who are trying to protect them. Our goal is to reform this area of government and to establish an effective, transparent and accountable child protective system.

We first reported on this case at http://custodyscam.blogspot.com/

To read the blog more easily, please reduce the width of your column. Some of the pictures can be enlarged by clicking once on them.

Comments and corrections may be sent in an email with no attachments to parenting project @ verizon.net

About "Parental Alienation"

If you are not familiar with Richard Gardner's theory of "parental alienation" and how it is being used in custody courts, scroll down to the earliest posting, "Junk Science in Custody Courts." For more scholarly research, visit  http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/1.html

For more on the scandal in custody courts, see: