We were 14 years old when a police officer led us out of our school in handcuffs. We hadn’t committed a crime, and were dedicated students who maintained clean disciplinary records. But we could no longer abide by the shared-custody agreement our parents had signed in their divorce nine years earlier. It mandated we spend half our time with our father, a man we had no relationship with and who largely ignored us except when he wanted something from us. When living with him became unbearable, we made the terrifying decision to use civil disobedience and refuse to go with him.
A Michigan judge imposed the same injustice on three siblings last month. Judge Lisa Gorcyca sentenced the Tsimhoni children — ages 9, 10 and 14 — to juvenile detention for refusing to meet with their father, drawing international attention. Gorcyca dismissed the children’s claims of abuse and insisted that their father, Omer Tsimhoni, is “a good man.” She sent them to Children’s Village before relenting to public outrage and moving them to a summer camp after more than two weeks.
In too many parental custody and visitation disputes, adults belittle children’s attempts to escape homes where they feel mistreated. Our father seemed to derive pleasure from controlling us and crushing our spirits. But like Gorcyca, a school administrator told us our father was “loving” and insisted that cutting him off would amount to throwing our lives away. Our friends’ parents were sympathetic, but believed what happened in our home was family business. Instead of allowing us to live with our mother full time, police sent us to juvenile detention for being “incorrigible” children.
[Editor’s note: Contacted by The Post, the authors’ father sent an e-mailed response: “Did I do everything perfectly? No. But my goal and my motivation is and always was for my children to become strong, healthy, happy people. … From the eyes of the adolescent girl, a parent’s behavior isn’t always seen clearly."]
Judge Gorcyca justified her action by saying the siblings’ mother brainwashed them to hate their father. She told the children, “one day you are going to realize what’s going on in this case and you’re going to apologize to your dad.” But as 22-year-olds who were once in the Tsimhoni children’s position, we’re still not apologizing.
We begged our father to release us to our mother full time on several occasions, but he dismissed our pleas. Our mom couldn’t afford a legal battle to change the custody agreement, and we believed the effort would be futile anyway. Since the pain our father caused us didn’t leave marks on our bodies, it was difficult to prove.
For years, we felt stressed and afraid, suffering from headaches, stomachaches, and even occasional panic attacks. We began wishing that our father would hit us so someone would finally believe we were in pain. Hope once dreamed that he punched her in the face, causing blood to stream down her jaw. In the dream, she cried tears of joy and said in a relieved whisper, “thank you.”
When we entered high school, we hoped the court would believe we were old enough to decide to live with our mother. When our father arrived to pick us up from school one day, we refused to go. We called for the school police officer, foolishly believing he and a school administrator would protect us. We were wrong. They scorned us for the way we were treating our “loving father” who “just wanted to make things better.” Instead of allowing us to leave with our mother, the police officer gave us a choice: Go with our father or be arrested. We chose the latter.
We were frisked, cuffed, and led through the halls of our high school to a police car.
As in the Tsimhoni children’s case, social workers acted as though our mother had brainwashed us. They accused us of causing a fight between our parents and treated us like criminals. At the detention facility, we were forced to remove our clothes and replace them with stained uniforms. Authorities separated and interrogated us. When we tried to explain that we felt mistreated and depressed in our father’s home, the man processing us said, “Stop giving me these evasive answers! Did he or did he not leave a mark?”
At the juvenile facility where we were taken, authorities bullied us just as Judge Gorcyca bullied the Tsimhoni children. We were held as voluntary walk-ins, but were free to walk out only into our father’s hands until we turned 18 or a judge ordered otherwise.
The detention facility staff did everything possible to break us down, adding to the trauma we had experienced from our father. We were not allowed to touch each other, even to hold hands in prayer. If we spoke too loudly, the staff yelled at us; if we spoke too softly, they forbade us from speaking at all.
It was a dehumanizing experience, but still less frightening than returning to our father. So we tried to make peace with our new reality.
It was dinner time on our third day in detention when our mom arrived with a court order for our release. The judge gave her temporary physical custody and required a psychological evaluation of us. The evaluator determined it was better for us to live with our mom than in a jail facility.
We have spoken to our father only once in the eight years since then. We are now faced with the misfortune of factoring the cost of trauma therapy into our budgets for graduate school, but we are lucky compared to many formerly incarcerated teens. Because of the inadequate education in juvenile detention facilities, many drop out of school and end up back in detention or jail. We still celebrate our Independence Day, marking our release from the juvenile detention facility and our father’s control.
We passionately resent that the court system forced us to live in a house where we didn’t feel loved and protected. Over time, the law has decided that people are not property, unless they are children. An adult cannot incarcerate his “defiant” employees, parents, or romantic partner, but the law will readily incarcerate his children for him. If the court protected us as it protects adults, we would have had much healthier and happier childhoods.
Like the judge in Omer Tsimhoni’s case, our father invoked the concept of “parental alienation syndrome” to discredit our charges of mistreatment. It’s a claim parents in custody battles often exploit to accuse their ex-spouses of brainwashing their children to turn against them, convincing mediators that the children have been coached to lie. As a result, bad parenting and abuse go uninvestigated and children are returned to violent and emotionally damaging homes. In extreme cases, the child or the protective parent is incarcerated for refusing to obey the court’s custody or visitation order.
Children should never be incarcerated without being found guilty of a crime. Spurious charges like “incorrigibility,” for which only children are prosecuted, are inherently discriminatory and should be abolished. Children should be represented by an attorney in custody cases at the expense of the state. Currently, they’re given a guardian ad litem, often a volunteer with only a few days’ training.
Further, courts should never overlook children’s complaints of abuse or mistreatment. Whether emotional or physical, such charges should be thoroughly investigated before custody or visitation orders are made. Courts exist to protect citizens’ rights, including children’s — and children should have the right to live in healthy homes.
In the Tsimhonis’ case, there is no ambiguity. From experience, we know that the decision to use civil disobedience to escape a parent is made not on a childish whim, but in genuine desperation. What we, and the Tsimhonis, were saying was: “Being with our father is so unbearable that we would rather risk imprisonment than associate with him. Let us live with our mom.” It’s a message that our justice system should not ignore.
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