The Wolferts sisters, Danielle and Sydney (ages 15 and 16), ran away during visitation with their mother on July 17, 2014, after reporting abuse by their father and then remained in hiding until found with their mother on January 3, 2016. They have been held without charges in a Utah juvenile detention center, known as Slate Canyon, for more than three months, during which Child Protective Services substantiated their allegations of father Brian Wolferts’ emotional abuse, but failed to substantiate allegations of physical abuse due to insufficient evidence. The sisters have been ordered to return to his custody against their will as of March 23, 2016.
The Juvenile Fourth District Court initially decided that the Wolferts sisters would remain in Utah, but Brian Wolferts filed a requisition order to force the sisters back to his custody in Kansas. The Wolferts sisters’ present guardian ad litem Kacy Borlik strongly advocated for them to remain in Utah, but Judge Brent Bartholomew ruled that they be returned to Brian Wolferts in Kansas.
On March 11, 2016, Judge Bartholomew denied the Department of Child and Family Services’ request to have another 30 days to review and investigate recent evidence. Danielle and Sydney and their 20-year-old sister Brittany were prepared to testify to the alleged abuse and their custody preferences, but were prevented from speaking, due to a motion filed by their allegedly abusive father. Judge Bartholomew’s response to the motion states: “It is not in the best interest of the parties’ minor children to testify as to their custody preference.”
In recognition of children’s role in determining their own best interests, some states now mandate that children above a certain age be given the right to testify and declare their best interests in custody cases, unless the judge can provide a specific finding for waiving this right. Utah law does not entitle children to testify, and states that the desires of children over the age of 14 “shall be given added weight,” but are not the controlling factor. Unsubstantiated abuse allegations are often not considered in custody proceedings, but proving abuse is often very difficult, since abuse is not always carried out with witnesses present. The testimony of the children is sometimes the closest thing to evidence that the court can consider.
Domestic violence experts Barry Goldstein and Mo Hannah’s book Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Child Custody contains a chapter examining 175 homicides that occurred when children’s abuse allegations were disbelieved and custody was awarded to the alleged abuser. Goldstein said of the Wolferts’ case:
I think the brave sisters should be heard before the court blindly inflicts more harm. We recently interviewed dozens of the best judges from communities where court decisions disbelieving abuse reports gave the abusers the access they needed to kill the children. The judges said they didn’t create reforms in response to the tragedies because they thought the murder was an exception. The judge in the Wolferts case is using the same outdated practices that failed the dead children.
Past examples show that tragic outcomes are far from unfortunate exceptions. Returning children to parents they themselves fear and consider abusive has had tragic consequences in many cases. A disturbing Associated Press report found that, over the course of six years, at least 786 children died while under the supervision of Child Protective Services.
The sisters have already demonstrated that they would rather go into hiding and spend more than three months in a juvenile detention facility than live with Brian Wolferts. Advocates and family members would like the sisters placed in protective custody immediately and allowed to testify.
The girls’ mother, Michelle Wolferts, told Truthout:
“As their mother who has always been striving for nothing more than to ensure that the world would offer them the right to in the very least have a semi-normal childhood, I have been given much reason to utterly give up on this hope. After years of helplessly watching them unnecessarily exploited through multiple, ongoing serious legal injustices, I am terrified that they will not be able to withstand acts threatened or taken against them. I hope that more people will start protecting and offering relief to mine and other suffering children.”
Family members fear for the Wolferts sisters’ safety when they are subjected to reunification “therapy” (often termed “deprogramming“) to treat the discredited diagnosis of Parental Alienation Syndrome.
Utah 4th District Judge Christine Johnson signed Brian Wolferts’ amended ex parte restraining order, ordering Sydney and Dani into “The High Road to Reunification” program, conducted by unlicensed therapist Dorcy Pruter.The Tsimhoni children, who garnered international headlines last summer after being berated and jailed by Michigan Circuit Judge Lisa Gorcyca for refusing to have visitation with their allegedly abusive father, underwent this program with Pruter. The therapy proved unsuccessful and traumatic.
In spite of his own social media presence and history of interviews with media, Brian Wolferts filed a March 22 ex parte motion to silence advocates for the girls and shut down all social media for the case. As a gag order is not yet in effect, updates will be posted on Brittany Wolfert’s website and under the social media tag #LetThemSpeak as long as possible.
“Parental Alienation Syndrome is 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.” [See more here.]
On this page of Dorcy Pruter’s website, she describes her program as “NOT THERAPY” but “an educational and skill building workshop.” Her credentials include a high-school diploma, personal experience and her claim to being a “certified Conscious Co-Parenting, Custody and Reunification Coach.”
According to the redacted exhibits describing the therapy, the Tsimhoni children were severely distraught when taken to fulfill the “reunification therapy” protocol. When informed that their father was there to meet them, their response was “obvious signs of outward emotional distress, i.e. crying, dry heaving, balling into the corner etc.”
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.