Allen v. Farrow is Really About How Children Don’t Have Legal Rights
Our legal system treats children like we’re living in a Monty Python sketch about the Middle Ages
At its core, Allen v. Farrow is about how children only have as many legal rights as the adults around them are willing to bestow. As Dylan Farrow says at the beginning of the HBO documentary’s third episode, “What I remember is that after the attic, things started changing really rapidly. I said this thing, and it started this nightmare of lawyers, and the phone ringing, and everything changed.” In 1992, Woody Allen was investigated for child sex abuse charges. That same year, I was a six-year-old child actor 3,000 miles away on the west coast, being sexually abused by my own father. In Dylan Farrow’s words, “It’s incomprehensible to normal people because it’s not normal.”
Watching the HBO documentary’s third episode reminded me of the day my pediatrician asked if she could call a police officer to file a report against my father. I sat on the loud, scratchy paper of the exam table after my first-ever pelvic exam, my feet dangling over the edge. The cop asked me questions, taking notes on a pad of paper as he stood far away, near the door, as though he didn’t want to be too close to what had happened to me. Or maybe it was that he didn’t want to frighten me. My pediatrician stood beside me. The officer asked if I wanted to press charges. And I asked if that meant I would need to see my dad again in court, or if I would be guaranteed any kind of protection. The officer said ‘no’. My dad had already been to prison, and each time when he was released, he returned more violent than before. What good could a court hearing and prison possibly do, I wondered? I also feared that my dad might retaliate, as he had threatened to kill me, my mom and my siblings before. I weighed my options and decided that I could not risk trusting the legal system to keep me physically safe or rehabilitate my dad in any positive way. I declined to press charges, and the officer left.
In his interview for the documentary, John E.B. Myers, UC Hastings College of Law Visiting Professor, explained our long history of women and children being systematically discredited and not believed. Citing references from as far back as the 1880s, he said: “If you look back from an historical point of view, there’s clearly a bias against women who made allegations of rape and sexual abuse against children. The very term hysteria is applied to women. It was easy to believe that women who made allegations were themselves mentally ill. […] The level of skepticism of women’s allegations of rape and sexual assault was almost monolithic. People don’t want to believe that this could be happening in the context of a family. It’s so awful to think that a father could be doing this to his child, that we would rather assume that we’ll look for any explanation other than […] the truth.”
As a childhood sexual assault (CSA) survivor who managed to live to adulthood, I have learned that child rape survivors are branded with a different stigma than people who are sexually assaulted as adults or as teenagers, although they too face overwhelming and dangerous stigmas. Most child sexual assault survivors face a 3-tiered stigma of disbelief over the unthinkably horrible:
- You are not “crazy” enough for that to be true.
- You’re too “crazy” for me to respect you.
- Why can’t you just get over it? That happened a long time ago.
Looking at the origins of America and Britain’s legal systems, our justice system was clearly not designed with children in mind. What chance can child victims of sexual assault possibly have for justice in a system like this? Or, more importantly, bodily safety? The clash of our legal system and its inability to protect or serve vulnerable children is most visibly illustrated in immigration court proceedings where many children do not have legal counsel. In a scene that looks like it could be a Monty Python sketch about the Middle Ages, courtrooms transform to look like daycare centers on days that immigrant children are expected to advocate for themselves in many deportation hearings. They line up to face a judge alone in a legal system wrought with adult language that many English-speaking adults can’t even comprehend, compounded by a gruelingly dull bureaucratic violence to decide their fate.
As a child actor, I loved booking auditions because it meant I would get to spend time with my nice, fun, but fake family of actors and crew on set instead of my abusive parents. I think of this when Dylan explained how the Yale psychiatrist mislabelled her delusional when she mentioned the magical hours. What an Ivy League psychiatrist might call delusional, a kid raised by filmmakers knows that there are certain times of day that the light is better for a shot.
When I was 8 and my sister was 4, my sister had emergency vaginal surgery at a local hospital. Child Protective Services (CPS) was called, and my mom rehearsed with me what I was supposed to say when the blonde woman with a clipboard arrived. I thought that I was auditioning for an acting gig; I didn’t know what a social worker even was at the time. Whatever I said, CPS closed the case. My family appeared white and wealthy at the time, although some of that wealth had been exploited from my body. I learned last month that CPS purged their records in 1999, so they have no record of their investigation, which is a problem because CPS recently gave an infant to my dad who molested and trafficked me. But that’s another story for another article.
In the Allen v. Farrow documentary, the case’s New York Child Welfare Investigation Supervisor (1988–1993), Sheryl Harden holds back tears as she explains why she had to leave her position after her department investigated Woody Allen. “The elite can do whatever they want to do, and there’s no consequences for it. Not long after that, I think maybe a year later, I left the city agency completely. Because I could not continue to do what I did to those low-income families, those Black families, and welfare families, and have them treated differently than if they would’ve been a Woody Allen.”
All children’s legal rights are by proxy. As a child, you rely on adults to advocate on your behalf. Try to imagine a 6-year-old who knows how and when to call a lawyer. It’s a laughable premise, and yet our systems are built to fail children. Until we reform CPS and strategize how to fund it better, we cannot feign to care about children in this society. For example in New York State, the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) had a budget 23 times smaller for the entire state than NYPD’s 2020 budget to police one single city. Granted, New York City is a very large city, but who are the police supposed to call when they find an abused child if CPS has a budget 23 times smaller with an exponentially larger territory to serve? New York’s abysmal child welfare system is only one example of terrible systems with entrenched racist and classist policies, operating without sufficient funding, in every state across the U.S. When people say “Defund the Police’’ this is what they mean.
Some of us are lucky enough to be born to, or adopted by, parents who don’t want to exploit or sadistically abuse their children. As horrific as my childhood was, I am saddled with survivor’s guilt, knowing that my little sister could have been adopted to another family who wasn’t so abusive. I wish I had known what to say to the CPS social worker instead of mistakenly thinking that I was auditioning for a part. With her clipboard and my mom’s coaching, I thought the social worker was a director. I was a child who was professionally trained to please adults, and unfortunately, I performed well.