Running away from home. Returned to their abuser.
First Published in the Huffington Post
The famous Wolferts sisters, Danielle and Sydney, disappeared on July 17, 2014, and remained in hiding until found safely with their mother on January 3rd. Now, they are being held without charges in a Utah juvenile detention center known as Slate Canyon. Although the sisters have repeatedly expressed their wishes to remain with friends and family in Utah, their allegedly abusive father has filed a requisition order to force them back into his custody in Kansas.
The Wolferts case appeared on an August 5th episode of “Dr. Phil.” This video from the teens was aired to show their wish to live with their mother, and their older sister Brittany Wolferts was hosted on the show alongside her alleged abuser Brian Wolferts. Brittany did not feel that the episode accurately portrayed her sisters’ situation and critiques several aspects of the episode in posts on her website wolfertssisters.blogspot.com. When asked about the show, Brittany explained, “I think, overall, it was absolutely traumatizing. They told me that Dr. Phil gives a voice to children, but I didn’t feel like he did at all. They promised me I would not be in front of my abuser and then changed their minds. Not only did Dr. Phil never turn to me so that I could speak, but I don’t think I would have been able to. I was shaking because my father still intimidates me.”
Brittany Wolferts, now age 20, has been attempting to advocate for her sisters and corroborate their abuse allegations. In spite of her age, her opinions are still attributed by some to alleged brainwashing and Parental Alienation (the subject of the “Dr. Phil” episode). Parental Alienation Syndrome is a controversial theory predicated on the belief that children can be “brainwashed” by one parent to hate an otherwise stand-up parent. The American Psychological Association has not accepted Parental Alienation, but judges are still using it to make custody decisions and order forced “reunification” with parents against whom children allege abuse. Critics believe that Parental Alienation claims are frequently made by one parent to discredit abuse allegations made by the child or the other parent. The American Bar Association, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and The National District Attorneys Association have advised against giving credence to “parental alienation” claims in court because of the danger they pose to victims of domestic violence and child abuse. One conservative estimate suggests that courts place 58,000 children in the custody of abusers annually.
“The family court system is routinely trafficking teenagers and young children away from their safe, nurturing parent and into continuing contact or the full custody of their abusive parent, which is why these young women ran away in the first place,” said the Center for Judicial Excellence Executive Director Kathleen Russell. “Sydney and Dani deserve now more than ever to have a voice and to be protected, but instead it seems that they’re being treated like their abuser’s property, which will undoubtedly traumatize them even further.” When children are not given a voice in their living situation and reporting abuse does not result in protection, it can seem like running away is the only option. The Wolferts case resembles several other high-profile cases including those of the Rucki sisters‘, Damon Moelter (covered extensively by FOX Los Angeles), and Jennifer Collins (the subject of the documentary No Way Out But One). In each of these cases, the children went into hiding after the dismissal of abuse allegations and the transfer of custody to the parent of whom they are or were afraid. Jennifer Collins and her siblings escaped with their mother to the Netherlands where they became the first Americans awarded asylum.
Abuse is disturbingly common among runaways, with 46% reporting physical abuse and 38% reporting emotional abuse. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), 34% of runaway youth reporting sexual abuse before leaving home. In spite of these statistics, running away is still a crime in 9 states, and runaways are taken into custody, housed in juvenile detention facilities, and even returned to the allegedly abusive homes that they ran away from. The Wolferts sisters’ present Guardian Ad Litem strongly advocated for them to remain in Utah, but the Judge’s decision not to return them to their father in Kansas was challenged with the filing of Brian Wolferts’ requisition order on January 15th.
Fearing that her sisters will be subjected to further abuse and traumatizing Parental Alienation “therapy” (often termed deprogramming) if returned to their father, Brittany Wolferts said: “My greatest hope is for them to be free. They are very intelligent girls, and they know where they’re safe. They deserve to make their own choice and have a voice which hasn’t happened to this point.” The next hearing in the Wolferts case is on January 29th. Meanwhile, the sisters will remain in juvenile detention.
Activist and Writer
Hope is an activist and writer who holds a Bachelor's of International Affairs from the University of Nevada, Reno. She has worked in journalism and nonprofits both at home and abroad, and is attending Central European University's School of Public Policy in pursuit of her MA.