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Fighting for Child Custody

Although children generally remain with their mothers following a divorce, when the father does sue for custody, he obtains it in 70 percent of all cases. This little-known statistic has taken on special importance in the 90’s, as men’s divorce lawyers use the threat of custody battles to gain monetary and other concessions from women. In cases where custody is disputed, judges — who are mostly male — often see the father as having greater earning potential and certainly more status in the community than the mother. These material factors can outweigh the emotional, and work heavily against awarding custody to the mother.

A specific case in point is that of Amy Neustein, a 33-year old Orthodox Jewish woman who lost custody of her daughter Sherry in 1986. The father, Ozzie Orbach, a physician in New York City, was granted custody, despite evidence from family members, medical personnel and others that he had sexually abused the child. Many of the facts of this case remain in closed files because confidentiality laws covering child welfare cases and the unwillingness of Orbach to talk to reporters, but the following account has been pieced together.

Amy Neustein and Ozzie Orbach were married in 1979. Shortly thereafter he became abusive towards her, Neustein claims. In 1980, Sherry was born; Orbach’s abusive behavior continued. They moved in with her parents in Brooklyn, where Shirley Neustein, Amy’s mother, says, “At that time he started to be really violent in my presence. He’d bang his head against the wall. He threw my grandmother’s cut glass things and they were all broken!’

Although Orbach told Neustein he wanted a divorce in 1982, he continued to visit the family on a regular basis. Neustein retained custody of Sherry, and continued to live with her parents. By the summer of 1986, Orbach was still visiting the family regularly, even though they had moved to Ellenville, NY, about two hours northwest of New York City. On one of those visits in the summer of 1986, Shirley Neustein charges that she observed her former son-in-law “on the floor, with the child (Sherry) on his pelvis. He’s gyrating. I pulled her off. His zipper was open and she was wet. I banished him from the house!’

Shirley Neustein claims that the family decided not to report the incident to the police or juvenile welfare authorities because of the shame such an incident would engender within their Orthodox community. (Amy Neustein’s father is a rabbi.) But as Orbach became more abusive toward the family — even throwing rocks through their window, they claim — they called in the police.

Within two weeks, Sherry was removed from her mother’s home and placed in foster care. Ironically, in not reporting the first instance of child abuse to the authorities promptly, Amy had committed a criminal offense and was deemed an unfit mother.

The Brooklyn organization overseeing Sherry’s foster care, Ohel, only handles cases involving Orthodox families. (In fact, Ohel was the supervising agency in the notorious case of Yaakov Riegler, the 11-year old child who was returned to his parents last summer and later allegedly died at his mother’s hand on Yom Kippur day, 1990, despite numerous reports that he was being abused again.)

Both Amy and Sherry Neustein underwent psychiatric evaluations by Dr. Arthur Green of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. Often used by husbands as an expert witness, he is known to be biased toward their position. Among other allegations, he accused Neustein of “brainwashing” Sherry into behaving falsely that she had been abused. Labeling her as paranoid and delusional, he testified that contact between mother and daughter could only augur badly, with the child picking up mental illnesses from the adult.

From the time Sherry was removed from her grandparents’ house, with the exception of sixteen months in foster care, she has lived with Ozzie Orbach. He became sole custodial parent in January 1988, and since March 1989 Neustein has been barred even from seeing Sherry. This latter order was issued by New York City Family Court Judge Leon Deutsch — known for his lack of empathy toward women — because Neustein rushed Sherry to the hospital on one of their visits. The attending physician at Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital reported that Sherry was “among the worst cases of pediatric emaciation I have ever seen. She weighed only 44 pounds fully clothed. The child was at least 30 percent under her expected weight!’ Had Sherry not received medical attention at that time, the doctor assumes that her condition would have become life threatening.

Amy Neustein continues to fight for her child’s custody, having spent more than $500,000 in legal fees. She has spoken on over 50 television and radio programs in an attempt to regain her daughter. Meanwhile, people who have seen Sherry claim that she is still seriously emaciated, probably anorexic, and even Ozzie Orbach admits Sherry’s weight has plummeted.

If nothing else, Neustein’s constant testimony has prodded New York legislators like State Assemblymen Jerrold Nadler and Oliver Koppel to investigate the system by which custody is awarded. Along with State Senator David Patterson, they have been holding hearings and contemplating legislation to insure that mothers are not prejudged in matters of custody.