Woody/Mia bitter legal battle 'typical' of custody hearings

April 12, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

For movie stars Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, it appears that art and courtroom battles imitate real life.

Their bitter child custody hearing, reminiscent of a soap opera plot with daily charges and countercharges, is just taking place on a much larger scale and stage than other cases of a similar nature, according to several attorneys who specialize in family law.

"It is fairly typical," said H. Joseph Gitlin, a Woodstock, Ill., lawyer and the author of "Gitlin on Divorce," a book on domestic relations law. "Child custody is total warfare. People do whatever they think they can get away with. Some of the stories are made up and some are more realistic.

"Money issues are easy to settle: She wants a million, he wants to give her half a million, so they settle at 750,000; they split it down the middle. But you can't do that with children."

David Royko, a mediator for the Cook County Marriage and Family Counseling Service in Chicago, said he told a couple recently that a Mia/Woody type of hearing "is what they have to look forward to" if they don't settle.

Mr. Allen and Ms. Farrow, who were never married, are fighting for custody of three children: an adopted son, Moses, 15; an adopted daughter, Dylan, 7; and a biological son, Satchel, 5. The dispute began in January 1992, when Ms. Farrow found nude pictures of the couple's 22-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Farrow Previn, in Mr. Allen's apartment.

Mr. Allen admitted to having a consensual affair with Ms. Previn, but denied Ms. Farrow's charges that he sexually abused Dylan.

Visitation and custody hearings began last August in New York and have included scathing attacks from both sides.

But aside from the high-profile names, the case differs only in scope with the thousands of child custody hearings that take place every day.

"Those two have the financial power to litigate each and every issue," said Donald Schiller, a family law attorney. "In a typical custody case, maybe only several of those things get litigated.

"But I think it brings attention to the things that do go on."

Those things, according to Chicago lawyer Joy Feinberg, generally include any and all tidbits that disparage the opposition's ability to parent -- from sexual abuse to bad habits. Therein lies the endless digging for dirt.

"When you're in a custody battle, you look at everything," Ms. Feinberg said.

Ms. Feinberg said a highly publicized case like the Mia/Woody brouhaha could instigate more allegations of sexual abuse from other parents.

A relatively small number of child custody disputes ever make it to trial, however. The vast majority end in an agreement -- though Mr. Royko said even the mediation sessions "are not all that calm. Fireworks are sort of par for the course."

The cases that don't get settled then go before a judge -- where tempers, emotion and inflexibility often rule.

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