As the United Nations blasts family courts, a trauma expert weighs in on their effect on children.
Catherine Kassenoff made it crystal clear. She resorted to an assisted suicide in Switzerland because she endured the most heart-wrenching agony a mother can face: losing her children.
“I cannot survive this torment and the grief that comes from such a prolonged separation from my children. I am a 2-time breast cancer survivor with a new dire diagnosis that makes continuing this fight impossible. I continue to be placed on supervision, with no more than a few hours a week with my girls. No overnights, no taking my children to school, no bathing them, no hosting sleepovers or birthday parties, no getting to know their friends, no vacations, no living with them. I have been thoroughly excised from their lives by the courts. And I was a great and loving mother. “
She wrote this last letter over Memorial Day weekend, and Ms. has confirmed her death through multiple official sources. In it, she said the New York family court system allowed her husband, who their daughters accused of physical abuse against one of them, to weaponize the legal system—taking away her home, job, daughters and ultimately her health. This smart, tenacious attorney’s story has gone viral on social media, where many have asked: What will happen to Catherine Kassenoff’s three daughters now?
It’s actually quite simple. Their father Allan Kassenoff, who resigned from the law firm Greenberg Traurig after a wave of protest against him following Catherine’s death, has custody. And, unless something major happens like an investigation into his fitness as a parent, it will remain that way.
“The reality is in Catherine’s absence there is nothing to really address when it comes to custody,” her attorney Evan Wiederkehr said. “The divorce was not finalized so as far as the law is concerned, it never happened.”
Yes, there is such a thing as grandparents’ rights in New York state but Wiederkehr is unclear if Catherine’s family will pursue that legally.
Dr. Christine Cocchiola is a coercive control and protective parenting expert who, as a clinician and researcher, hears stories of women losing custody of their children every day.
“Revenge. It becomes the final weapon used by people who exert power and control over others,” she said. “They are saying, ‘If I cannot control you, then I will use the systems intended to protect you, to control you.’”
The courts continue to make decisions that place our most vulnerable in harm’s way, trafficking them into the hands of the coercive controller.Dr. Christine Cocchiola
This type of “scorched earth” campaign that Cocchiola sees often—and that Kassenoff said happened to her—breaks victims down. It’s not uncommon for them to need to liquidate assets, to lose their jobs (due to ongoing court hearings) and to experience a decline in their health fighting for their kids.
While high-conflict perpetrators are often bent on hurting their spouse, in reality, it’s also the children who suffer long lasting trauma.
“When they are ripped from the care of their protective parent, they have a loss of their primary attachment. There truly is no greater loss for a child,” said Cocchiola. “The research is undeniable. The trauma is significant. Yet, the courts continue to make decisions that place our most vulnerable in harm’s way, trafficking them into the hands of the coercive controller.”
Just last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council addressed the unfair treatment of domestic abuse victims in family court. Reem Alsalem, the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, presented the findings of her study “Custody, Violence Against Women and Violence Against Children” before the council.
“Within the context of child custody cases, there exists multi-layered violence that has yet to enter the collective conscience of the international community as a human rights issue,” she started her remarks saying.
The report recommends that states legislate to prohibit the use of “parental alienation theory”—a pseudoscientific premise which is often employed by abusers to claim the other parent encouraged children to make up the allegations and turn against them—and experts who support this idea in family courts around the world. It also recommended banning reunification camps, places that claim to remedy parental alienation and repair a child’s relationship with their “alienated parent”—which, in some cases, can be their abuser.
Alsalem blasted courts’ erroneous reasoning that it is in the child’s best interest to maintain contact with their father under all circumstances: “The most troubling part is the deliberate orders issued by courts to return a child to an abusive parent, even when there is credible evidence of abuse, and only because contact with that parent was considered more important than any other consideration, including the safety and security of that child.”
This is not just a U.S. problem, evidenced in Brazil, where officials are considering a three-year maximum prison sentence for those who engage in “parental alienation.”
The Human Rights Council had blamed “harmful gender stereotypes and discriminatory gender bias among family law judges” in its request for submissions on this topic. Catherine Kassenoff’s own attorney believed she was judged for her persistence, stamina and desire to defend herself. Wiederkehr said that the court viewed that perseverance as Catherine being “unhinged.”
“When Catherine took exception to judges and lawyers saying things she found to be factually wrong, her articulating her objection was viewed as evidence that they were right,” he said.
“Pro-alienation practitioners often position a mother’s normal attachment with their children as something pathological and dangerous,” said Natalie Page, founder of the advocacy group #thecourtsaid.
It begs the question: Would a man be labeled “unhinged” if he defended himself against an onslaught of allegations and fought to see his children?
In Catherine Kasssenoff’s court documents, which she left for supporters in a Dropbox, the 2020 order granting Allan full custody notes that their daughters requested to live with their mother. The court also states that, despite those requests, their concern that Catherine had and would continue to alienate the children from Allan, trumped the girls’ desire—a clear prioritization of alleged “parental alienation” over other factors.
In her goodbye letter before taking her own life Catherine wrote, “The abuser who claimed he was alienated has repeatedly been empowered by the Courts of New York State to alienate me, the protective parent, from my own children. He now seeks to cut off all contact again.”
Sadly, Catherine did not live to see it, but now the United Nations is taking up the fight to end unfair treatment of abuse victims in family court. Stay tuned.
Editor’s note: We have repeatedly contacted Allan Kassenoff, his attorney and his former employer for comment, as well as the New York Office of Court Administration, but they have not granted our request for a statement or interview.
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