Ex-Hasidic Mother Loses Custody of Children
A 32-year-old mother from Monsey, N.Y., has lost custody of her children due largely to what a judge described as the mother’s inadequate religious observance.Kelly Myzner, mother of three boys, ages 5 to 8, recently had her children removed from her home, following a custody battle that ended with a ruling in favor of the Hasidic father.
In a ruling dated April 22, 2013, Judge Sherri L. Eisenpress, of Rockland County Family Court, ordered the custody transfer “despite the children’s expressed wishes.” The judge acknowledged that the mother has been the children’s primary caretaker, that the children were “extremely bonded” to her, and that she appeared to be “far more involved and vigilant” about their care than the father. Still, the judge worried that the mother’s lax religious observance would “tremendously confuse” and harm the children.
Complicating the case are allegations of physical and sexual abuse brought by the mother against the father, and the judge’s speculation that the complaints were only a ploy to alienate the children from their father. Myzner claims that she had no such intentions, and the court ruling acknowledges that the father regularly used corporal punishment coupled with a bad temper.
On May 14, after an unsuccessful bid for a stay on the order, the children were removed from Myzner’s custody. Due to pending investigations against the father on abuse complaints, the children were placed in foster care.
“I am in complete shock,” Myzner said, a day after her children were taken. “I can’t sleep. I can’t stop shaking. I miss my kids more than words can describe. I’m just praying that they feel safe and that the truth will come out.”
Myzner’s tale of frustration with the Hasidic community began nearly a decade ago, when she first befriended a Satmar family in Brooklyn, at age 23. Raised in Brick, N.J., in one of the town’s few Jewish but secular families, the Satmar world was new to her—and, at first, strangely appealing.
“I thought I found truth, beauty, and a community in Hasidism,” she says. She had often felt different from her neighbors growing up, and she hadn’t quite understood why. “As a child,” Myzner says, “we had swastikas painted on our driveway. There were children who were not allowed to play with me because I was Jewish.” The Satmars, with their dedication to faith and tradition, offered a compelling perspective from which to view her own experiences.
Soon Myzner adopted the Hasidic lifestyle, and after several brief sit-in dates, she was married to a Satmar boy, the match arranged through friends and professional matchmakers.
“I was totally clueless about what was happening,” Myzner says. “I trusted that my friends wanted the best for me. So I went along with it. I wanted to be part of this, to be the perfect Satmar wife and mother.”
Myzner hadn’t realized that the pool of prospective matches had been a narrow one. “I was a baal tshuvah, and they were basically setting me up with Satmar ‘bums.’ I was taking my religion very seriously, and these boys were just not like that. But I had no way to know that.”
Disillusion was swift.
During their engagement period, Myzner and her betrothed had a one-time sexual tryst, and Myzner wondered whether her partner was really the perfect Satmar boy she was told about, or only drawn to her because of her more liberal upbringing. Still, she dismissed the encounter as an innocent slip-up. Soon after the wedding, however, she began to notice a pattern. “He bought a TV the first week we were married,” she says. Televisions are strictly prohibited within the Satmar community, and she was shocked at the ease with which her husband was willing to violate the rules.
Myzner describes subsequent years of a tumultuous and unhappy marriage. Early on, her husband turned critical over what he saw as her own lack of religious dedication. He also turned inattentive, and she felt her emotional state crumbling. “The very night of the wedding, he went to sleep with headphones over his ears. He paid no attention to me.”
The couple settled in Monsey, N.Y., and went on to have three children within a three-year period. Myzner says her children were her main source of comfort as the marriage deteriorated further. Rabbis and community counselors offered little help, Myzner says. “One by one they told me it was my fault, that I must be doing something wrong in the bedroom or kitchen.”
Her husband struggled in his own way: He often had uncontrollable outbursts of fury, Myzner says, and court documents reveal he was diagnosed with ADHD. Myzner says she remains sympathetic. “He had a very difficult childhood. He lost his parents at a young age, and he’s been through a lot. Some of his issues might stem from that.”
Her sympathy, however, didn’t protect her from his temper. When Myzner befriended a non-Hasidic neighborhood woman, her husband grew angry, and began to complain that Myzner herself was “not Jewish enough.” When Myzner refused to break off the friendship, Myzner says her husband flew into a fit of rage and threatened to “choke her [the friend] with a belt, and then he punched a hole in the wall in front of the kids.”
Myzner felt scared and confused by her husband’s outbursts, she says, but felt helpless to do anything. She had cut off contact with her old friends in the secular world, and felt trapped in a society that failed to provide her with much needed support.
After their third child was born, she claims her husband pressured her to go to work, but when Myzner hired a non-Jewish nanny to help care for the children, her husband had another one of his fits, locking the nanny out of the bathroom and tossing her food in the trash.
It wasn’t until November of 2011, that Myzner felt that she could no longer remain silent. She discovered signs of physical and sexual abuse on one of her children, she says. She believed that the abuser was her husband, and she did what she believed any responsible parent would do: she turned to her children’s doctor to report what she saw. A complaint was filed with Child Protective Services soon after, presumably by the doctor.
Myzner’s husband then filed for sole legal and physical custody of her children, effectively ending the marriage.
What began for Myzner as an attempt to protect her children, turned into a grueling inquisition over her level of religious observance.
Once the couple split, Myzner began to change in small ways. Feeling increasingly alienated from Monsey’s Hasidic community, she turned for support to her mother and some of her old friends back in New Jersey. She began to relax some of the practices she had undertaken over the previous years. “I was trying to find myself again, after what had been for me a number of disastrous years.”
Her ex-husband soon pounced with an attack: She was planning to leave the Hasidic community, he claimed in court documents, and her disregard for Hasidic law and custom made her unfit to continue parenting their children.
At first it seemed like her ex-husband was alone against her, but she soon realized it was a community-wide effort.
“I got threatening phone calls… all kinds of scare tactics,” Myzner says.
One day, she discovered surveillance cameras outside her neighbors’ homes turned suspiciously in her home’s direction. After confronting the neighbor, she was told the cameras were installed at the request of a local rabbi, ostensibly to monitor her behavior. A forensic psychologist who would later testify in court told her outright that she didn’t stand a chance. “The community is too powerful,” she remembers him saying.
Myzner was frightened, but remained determined. Her ex-husband, who works as a warehouse supervisor, hired a high-priced, aggressive attorney, who Myzner believes is being paid for by the Hasidic community. Myzner herself was forced to rely on pro bono legal representation from a local women’s shelter, which, she says, has proven insufficient to fight the aggressive tactics of her opponents.
Over the ensuing months there were additional C.P.S. complaints against the father, most of them filed not by Myzner but by professionals treating the children—pediatricians, therapists, psychiatrists. Myzner says she turned to professionals for guidance after the children returned from visiting their father with tales of beatings with belts and sticks. Their bodies were bruised. “What kind of mother would I be if I ignored it?”
Once the trial came around, in August of 2012, Myzner sat through days of testimony that felt to her like a Kafkaesque nightmare.
While her ex-husband acknowledged his episodes of rage and his frequent use of corporal punishment, he denied that any of it amounted to abuse; he argued in turn that her complaints only showed her desire to live a secular life undisturbed by his involvement in the children’s lives. Myzner vehemently denies that charge.
“I could not believe it,” Myzner says. “I was trying to protect my children, and he was making it about me not being religious enough.”
Most—although not all—of the abuse and neglect allegations were returned by Child Protective Services unfounded, but Myzner says her concerns were serious. Myzner says one of her sons returned from visitation with a broken finger, but the father did not mention it nor had he taken the child to see a doctor. “How could I not take this seriously? I just want him [the father] to get the help he needs.”
The judge, however, couldn’t get past Myzner’s lifestyle choices. In her April 22 ruling, the judge awarded custody to the father based primarily on the facts relating to Myzner’s drift from religious observance.
The judge acknowledged that Myzner had the right to live with or without religion. She also acknowledged that Myzner was overall the more involved and attentive parent, and that the father had shown a pattern of denial of the children’s needs. She also acknowledged the father’s anger problems and his regular use of corporal punishment. Ultimately, though, it came down to who fit in better with the children’s Hasidic lifestyle.
The judge wrote she was concerned that the mother’s decision to “become secular” would spill over to the children, and that, among other things, the mother “(may) [might] change the children’s conservative attire and grooming, change her appearance when she is with the children, permit the children to view television and access the internet.”
The Court, the judge wrote in her ruling, credited the view of a local Orthodox psychiatrist who testified “that it would be difficult psychologically and tremendously confusing for children raised in a religious home to live between two different worlds.”
Myzner questions that view. “My children already know there are two worlds,” she says. “They have long been exposed to people outside the Hasidic world.” Myzner says her children have a close relationship with her own mother, their grandmother, who does not lead a religiously observant lifestyle. “It hasn’t confused them at all. It has made them more aware of people’s differences.”
For now, the children have been placed with a Hasidic family Myzner does not know. Days later, Myzner says the emotional toll feels too great to bear.
“I have no words. I am in so much pain, and I can’t escape it. I feel so helpless and scared and confused.”
Myzner says she is determined to appeal the ruling. She lacks the funds to hire an attorney, she says, but she isn’t letting that stop her.
“I’ll file the paperwork on my own if I have to,” she says. “My children are my life, and I know that they need me. I am not giving up.”
To contribute to Ms. Myzner’s legal fund, please visit the “Bring Kelly’s Kids Home” fundraising campaign.
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