Dr. Bandy Lee—who warned the country about Donald Trump—calls the family court system another threat to our democracy.
Dr. Bandy Lee knows narcissists. And sociopaths. And psychopaths.
In fact, she studies coercive controllers for a living. She made headlines—and published The New York Times bestselling book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump—because she just couldn’t sit on the sidelines watching a clear and present danger to democracy.
Now, this world-renowned forensic psychiatrist and violence expert, who has taught at Yale School of Medicine and Law School, feels the same way about America’s family court crisis.
“I hadn’t expected that I would write on this subject and have been working in courts for 25 years,” she said, “but what I have stumbled upon is so alarming, so egregious and so dangerous to women and children that I can’t remain silent about it.”
It’s also personal. “If this could happen to Catherine Kassenoff and to my sister, who could escape this destructive machine?” Lee asked. “Family courts have abdicated their duties to bring justice and to curb violence—and have actually promoted it. This is a structural violence that goes way beyond individuals and has widespread social and cultural consequences.”
Lee had been in touch with Catherine Kassenoff, the New York mother and accomplished attorney who said she was ending her life through an assisted suicide over Memorial Day Weekend because she couldn’t fight for custody of her daughters any longer. Kassenoff had been helping a fellow protective mom trying to get her children back, and Lee had consulted on the case.
Ms. has learned through an official source, who does not want to reveal their identity or give further details, that official notification over the weekend confirms Kassenoff is dead.
“When I received Catherine’s last email, it affected me the entire day. Looking into her case, it was almost identical to my sister’s, who was a high official, hailed a hero after 9/11 and someone who sacrificed her career to focus on the children,” she said of her sister Patricia who was the New York governor’s office Ground Zero coordinator. “Now, she has not seen her children for years, while her husband, who is rageful and screams at the children, has sole custody.”
Lee said her sister experienced 15 years of coercive control, which included verbal, psychological, sexual, physical and financial abuse. When her husband, a Harvard Law School-trained corporate attorney, filed for divorce in 2020, he suddenly wanted custody of the children, even though Patricia had been the primary caregiver.
A July 2021 incident, during which Lee said her then-brother-in-law caused his 7-year-old son’s head injury, was reported to Child Protective Services, but even still, the court mandated visits with their father. Lee said the judge ruled that the children be taken involuntarily by police if they resisted, and they were—even after trying to set their house on fire in protest.
Lee’s attorney wrote the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency a letter asking for a proper investigation, stating, “The ordered visits led to a precipitous decline in the children’s health, safety and well-being including acts of self-harm, worsening suicidal ideations, gestures to burn down the house and overt signs of trauma.”
Like Kassenoff, Lee said her sister was labeled “mentally incompetent” in family court—contradicting at least nine psychiatric reports that found otherwise. Catherine fought cancer while fighting for her children; Patricia developed a life-threatening illness from the stress as well, a dangerous high blood pressure condition.
Lee said the children’s father claimed Patricia was trying to “abscond” with the children during a weekend actually assigned to her by the court, and the charges were dropped. But then, she said, the court awarded him full custody and Patricia hasn’t seen her children for two years. The mother of two doesn’t even know why.
It is an abuser’s dream come true to be labeled the good one and to accuse their victims of their own guilt and own crimes—and also to call the healthy person mentally ill.Dr. Bandy X. Lee
Lee lived with the couple for an extended time and said she witnessed the abuse firsthand, but the court would not let her testify about what she saw—despite her credentials as an expert witness in criminal and civil courts for 25 years, plus her status as a mandated reporter (someone required to report suspected child abuse when they are presented with a reasonable cause to suspect it).
“What family courts have enabled is the ability of abusers—through the accusation that the other parent is alienating them from their children—to reverse the victim and offender,” Lee said, referring to a strategy from the abusers’ playbook called DARVO (deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender).
“It is an abuser’s dream come true to be labeled the good one and to accuse their victims of their own guilt and own crimes—and also to call the healthy person mentally ill.”
Lee points to a study by George Washington University Law Professor Joan Meier that found that of the 1,077 cases where mothers alleged domestic violence, courts believed the women in only 459—less than half—of them. Of the 304 where mothers accused fathers of child sexual abuse, family courts sided with moms in only 19 percent of cases.
Frequently deployed as a cross-claim by accused abusers in contested custody cases, the term for this supposed manipulation is “parental alienation.” And this case is one of countless others across the country claiming one parent is turning children against another. The theory is junk science that has been widely denounced, including recently by the United Nations. The man who developed the theory, Richard Gardner, has been criticized by The Leadership Council, an independent scientific organization, for being a pedophile sympathizer.
“Alienation is a pseudoscientific theory that has been widely discredited, but is frequently used in family court as a tactic by those accused of abuse,” said Danielle Pollack, policy manager at The National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington Law and the originator of Kayden’s Law, passed nationally to limit the power of abusers to weaponize our court system against a safe parent—and get custody of children. “The fact is the family court system is, in essence, enabling unethical professionals to profit off abused women and children.”
The court system is not used to people with such unrelenting perseverance—and that perseverance is often viewed as being unhinged because most people bend and don’t refuse to compromise just to get to the other side.Evan Wiederkehr
Catherine Kassenoff spoke to this inequity in her final letter blaming her suicide on the courts:
“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. The reason the courts engaged in this horror, where they “temporarily” took away custody, my personal property, a home I owned and lived in, my dogs, my health, my career, and my dignity—for the last 4 years—was so that the nearly $ 4 million that Allan Kassenoff, my ex husband, had to spend to destroy me could be handed out to the court-appointed forensics, therapists, lawyers for the children and the attorney for Kassenoff.”
Catherine had started off determined to fight the allegations at the beginning of the four-year battle—telling Ms. in the first story ever published about her case, “It’s the only way out”—but her tenacity as a mother and attorney actually worked against her. Her own lawyer Evan Wiederkehr said so.
“It’s not a secret because I said this to Catherine and to others: The court system is not used to people with such unrelenting perseverance—and that perseverance is often viewed as being unhinged because most people bend and don’t refuse to compromise just to get to the other side,” he said.
Wiederkehr said he spent dozens of hours face to face with her. “Catherine was remarkable in terms of her stamina and willingness to continue to fight against what she found to be an unjust process. I never believed she suffered any fundamental mental health issues. I always found her to be a person dealing with extraordinarily difficult circumstances and refusing to simply accept what was imposed on her.”
Criminal behavioural analyst Laura Richards said she was not surprised, since the court system is not set up to benefit women at all.
“Catherine’s horrific case as well as many others continue to highlight that systems like the Family Court were designed by men to protect men,” said Richards. “Unfortunately, what tends to happen is a war of attrition and it comes down to who has the deepest pockets and power over the other (mainly men) rather than ensuring the child(ren) are with the protective, non-abusive parent (mainly women). How can that be right?”
Lee said it’s not—that’s why her next book is called The Dangerous Case of Family Courts.
“They are not at all ‘courts of law’ as we conceive them. They have such wide discretion, coupled with total secrecy, that any abuse can happen and does,” she said, pointing out that most Americans would never believe the brutality that happens in prisons, which she has studied. “The same lack of oversight applies to family court—these kinds of human rights abuses have been ignored for a very long time and this level of violence would not be allowed if the public knew what was happening.”
Lee blames the family court dysfunction for developmental injuries and psychological impairments among children, a topic she knows well as a consultant for the World Health Organization and helped author the United Nations’ chapter on “Violence Against Children.” She said these traumatized children grow up to be adults and are susceptible to cults, hate groups and authoritarian leaders—like Trump. Plus, what we see in family court is part of Trumpism’s capitalization of white men’s fear of being “unmanned,” as Jackson Katz put it. So, Lee believes, this family court crisis affects the very fabric of our democracy.
What is the solution? Dr. Bandy Lee said two things: accountability and transparency—and thinks now, with cases like Catherine Kassenoff’s going viral, is the time.
Her final warning: “This has been going on for so long and is so egregious, we are on the brink of an explosion.”
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