Why would a brilliant attorney and mother of three take her own life? Because the dysfunctional U.S. family court system took her kids and drove her—like so many others—over the edge.
“This is a story that ends with my own assisted death in Switzerland. Its lead up has been published for years on Facebook, in Ms. magazine and in other media. The New York Court system is responsible for this outcome and should be held accountable for ruining the lives of my children, me, and so many other similarly-situated protective parents (mostly mothers) who have tried to stand up against abuse but were labeled ‘liars,’ ‘mentally ill’ and then treated like criminals.”—Catherine Kassenoff, May 27, 2023
This was the message a Westchester County, N.Y., woman sent on Memorial Day Weekend to those who knew about the epic war she was fighting—to get her three daughters back in a years-long custody dispute with her husband. And, through the tears, most of us thought four things: I am devastated; sadly, I can understand how she reached this heartbreaking decision; our family court system did this; and we must fight for change before we lose more Catherines.
Our courts repeatedly allow abusers to weaponize our legal system against women—making them the target of a war that can cost them, like Kassenoff, their health, jobs, money, homes, children and peace. No one should live this way in America—or anywhere. It’s an underworld only those who have been through family court, or know someone who has, can comprehend.
“I cannot survive this torment and the grief that comes from such a prolonged separation from my children. … This court system did this to me, as it does to countless other protective mothers (and fathers). Professor Joan Meier’s extensive research in this area confirms this is an epidemic. It is a predatory system that functions in darkness—through ‘gag’ orders like the one in my case, through a publicly-inaccessible docket, through a closed courtroom and through ex parte ‘temporary’ orders that are in place for years. Money is the goal, not helping families get through traumatic divorces. It must be investigated at large by the FBI or another federal law enforcement agency or it will continue to devastate our families.”
I first interviewed Catherine Kassenoff in December of 2021 for the groundbreaking Ms. article “Empty Home for the Holidays,” about how she and another protective mother, Cobie Jane, would spend the season without their children. Kassenoff was two and a half years into the battle with her husband, a litigator himself with Greenberg Traurig (now on a leave of absence), who she said took advantage of a dysfunctional judicial system after two of their daughters reported their father for physical abuse of one of them.
As Kassenoff wrote in her goodbye letter:
“Because the Courts of New York State are so invested in minimizing, suppressing and punishing valid claims of abuse, the Courts imposed ‘supervision’ on me for saying that the girls were telling the truth about their father’s abuse. This supervision, which came at a cost to me of $2500/week at its height, was at the suggestion of a court-appointed forensic evaluator named Marc Abrams. Abrams was removed from the Panel of Forensic Custody Evaluators on August 24, 2021.”
Kassenoff was far from alone—and had the guts to talk about it. When I first met this Dartmouth and NYU graduate, breast cancer survivor, and former assistant U.S. attorney, who was then-special counsel to New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D), it seemed that her bravery and brains would prevail.
“I do believe the only way out is to fight it,” she told me.
But if a superwoman like Catherine Kassenoff—who had grit, plus training as an elite legal mind—was defeated by our American family court system, what does that say for the rest of women terrorized and victimized?
George Washington University Law professor Joan Meier, who Kassenoff refers to in her final message, conducted an illuminating 2020 study that proved when women report domestic or child abuse the tables are often turned on them and they lose custody of their children. It’s a no-win situation.
- Less than half (41 percent) of women’s abuse claims are treated seriously.
- The chances that mothers’ allegations of child abuse will be believed are 2.23 times lower than domestic abuse.
- Child sexual abuse is rarely accepted by the courts—at 15 percent.
- Mothers reporting a father’s abuse (of various kinds) lost custody in 26 percent of cases.
So, who benefits from all of this? All the court appointed experts, therapists, parent coordinators and sometimes judges. Take it from Kassenoff, who said this after recounting how she was evicted from her home, arrested and barred from having custody of her children:
“Despite all of this, over these last 4+ years, I have kept going and fighting for my parental rights and to be a mother to my children. There are over 3,000 court filings in my case on NYSCEF [New York State Courts Electronic Filing], which I urge you to review. There are close to 80 motions. There are now 3 Attorneys for the Children and new therapists. The money being made at the expense of my family is so abhorrent that there will be nothing left at the end. I have liquidated retirement and other savings … My children have been diagnosed with various serious mental health conditions as a result of this trauma. They have been told to hate me, to call me ‘Catherine’ instead of ‘mom.’”
Kassenoff had some recent wins she shared on social media—going from extremely limited visits with her daughters, to longer unsupervised ones. She was arrested in January 2022 for violating a protective order and approaching their daughter by, in her words, “four armed police officers and pinned behind my car door. I was paraded in front of my daughter’s school in handcuffs, frisked, put in a cell and arraigned.” But all charges were dismissed in March. However, she was terminated from her job at the governor’s office after her arrest.
The next blow was devastating: A new forensic evaluator rubber-stamped disgraced Abrams’ old, erroneous report stating Kassenoff was manipulating her daughters. A court then imposed what she characterized as a “draconian” ruling, suspending all of Kassenoff’s visitation in May 2023. Who wouldn’t break?
This case follows countless others across the country that claim “parental alienation”—a pseudoscientific theory that has been widely discredited, including by the United Nations—but is often used by those accused of abuse.
Kassenoff’s attorney, Andrew J. Frisch, was unable to comment on the case since the litigation is ongoing. Under New York State law, if a spouse passes during a divorce, the case is “abated by death” and a judgment can no longer be entered.
The executor of Kassenoff’s estate, attorney Wayne Baker of New Mexico, her long-standing friend from their days clerking for judges, said he was awaiting definitive confirmation of her death (which could take four to six weeks)—though he strongly believes she “elected to end her life, peacefully with dignity in Switzerland.”
Baker blasted the system which he said prompted Catherine to make this decision—to keep her children from experiencing more pain. “You do not go from being a loving parent, to someone who cannot be in the presence of your children, based on filing for divorce. But this is the fraud the present system utilizes.”
“Why is it that Westchester County has so many parents that need to be supervised or are unworthy of being with their children?” he continued. “It isn’t in the water; it is based on Westchester being one of the richest counties in the country. The more experts, the more money involved. The more money involved, the greater likelihood that the wealthier of the parents will prevail. This industry is symbiotic; actually it is a mutualism relationship—each of the above experts work with the court and counsel to the benefit of all. All that is except the parties. And of course, the greatest fraud is the ‘best interest of the children standard,’ which uses the children as pawns.”
I contacted Allan Kassenoff to request an interview but did not receive an answer. However, his employer Greenberg Traurig made this public statement on June 2 after several videos of him went viral on social media:
“Allan Kassenoff has been involved in a divorce and custody matter that has been going on for more than 4 years. After lengthy trials and reviewing all the facts, including some videos, none of the 4 judges who presided over the trials or the 2 court-appointed neutral forensic evaluators found him to have committed wrongdoing or abuse as to his children or the contended domestic violence, and instead awarded him sole legal and physical custody of their three children. Nevertheless, the firm will be conducting its own investigation to determine his status with the firm. In the meantime, he is taking a voluntary leave of absence to focus on his family.”
Cobie Jane became friends with Kassenoff when they realized they were in the same boat—fighting against a Goliath.
“She is my hero. The only protective parent to score a win in family court. The injustice brings anyone with a conscience to their knees,” Jane said. “May her children grow up knowing how hard she fought to protect them and may we fight even harder in Catherine’s honor to make her unrealized dream a reality.”
“My heart is broken over this,” said Tina Swithin of One Mom’s Battle, who has devoted her life to helping protective mothers after her own epic custody battle. Swithin has joined with other advocates to form the National Safe Parents Organization which is lobbying for legislation protecting parents that rejects “parental alienation” claims by abusers.
Yes, in her farewell letter, Catherine Kassenoff referred to a “dire new diagnosis” which surely factored in this two-time breast cancer survivor’s decision—but it’s hard to argue that the constant trauma she was subjected to did not play a role in compromising her health. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal book The Body Keeps the Score, which has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for years now, supports that.
Kassenoff urged us to take up the war she never wanted and was no longer able to wage:
“Perhaps if I had not been re-diagnosed with cancer I could have lasted in this fight longer. But I do not have the strength to go forward. More importantly, I do not want to traumatize my children any longer in this court system …My children and I, along with thousands of other protective parents and their children, deserved better than this … If this could happen to me, it can happen to any woman, Don’t let it.“
Rest in power, Catherine Kassenoff.
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.