Declared Unfit: The Shocking True Story of How a Lesbian Mother Lost Custody to Convicted Murderer Father

A new documentary called Unfit: Ward v. Ward examines the 1995 case in which a Florida judge revoked custody from a lesbian mother in favor of the child's father, a convicted murderer.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

October 22 2012 8:06 PM ET

It's no secret that estranged ex-spouses of LGBT people often challenge parental custody rights in divorce proceedings, alleging that one parent's homosexuality (or gender identity) makes them unfit to raise the child they helped create. But how extreme is this bias? If the heterosexual parent was, say, a convicted murderer — would that be reason enough to believe a child would be better served by a lesbian mother?

Not according to a Florida judge in 1995, in the case of Ward v. Ward. The stunning case is recounted in a compelling new documentary currently burning up the film festival circuit. Co-directed by out filmmaker Edwin Scharlau III and Penny Edmonston, Unfit: Ward v. Ward tells the true story of how a simple request for a modest increase in child support resulted in a mother losing custody of her daughter to the child's father, who was not only uninvolved in his daughter's life but on his fourth marriage — after he was convicted of and served jail time for murdering his first wife in cold blood. 

Unfit has garnered wide acclaim across the festival circuit, winning Best Documentary awards at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, where it premiered April 30, the CKNY Scene LGBT Film Festival in Cincinnati, and the Boston LGBT Film Festival. Unfit: Ward v. Ward has been named the official selection for more than 25 LGBT and mainstream regional film festivals around the country.

In an exclusive conversation with Scharlau, 42, and out executive producer a co-director Katie Carmichael, 54, the filmmakers let our readers in on why they wanted to tell this story now, what they hope will come from it, and how things have — or haven't — changed for LGBT parents in the two decades since Mary Ward lost custody of her daughter Cassey to her murderer ex-husband.

The Advocate: What inspired you to tell this story now, when the case took place nearly 20 years ago?

Katie Carmichael: In March of 2009 I was at a National Center for Lesbian Rights fund-raiser where Kate Kendell was speaking about some of the cases that she had been involved with. … When she started talking about Mary Ward, I kept asking her questions because it affected me on a very deep level. I instantly felt drawn in by this injustice. The Internet provided a lot of material, so by the time I contacted Kate I had a lot of questions, but the most important question I had was: Was Mary a good mother? Kate's immediate response was that she was devoted to her children — and that Kate would have allowed Mary to take care of her own children. Personally, that was all I needed to know.

We live in Florida — a state that just legalized adoption for gay couples. Not that much has changed for us. If Romney is elected, we could all be forced back in the closet. I truly believe that.

Edwin Scharlau: We were looking for something to work on at the time and this just seemed like the right story and the right time. Also, I feel like we tend to think that so much has changed in the last 15-20 years — and I think with respect to LGBT visibility it definitely has — but I also feel that visibility has come with a price and that antigay sentiment has risen recently. And when it comes down to it, this wasn’t that long ago. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about how far we’ve come. I am amazed at how many people are completely shocked when I tell them about this case, because they feel that even 15 years ago this couldn’t have happened.

Why were each of you interested in this story on a personal level?

Carmichael: My own mother died when I was 13, and I can tell you that it hurts as much today as it did in 1971. So I could relate to all of [Mary's] children's pain. This should never have happened to this family.

Scharlau: I was interested in this story not just as a gay and lesbian story but as a human rights story. When it comes down to it, this is a story about a mother and a daughter. If we let judges bring their preconceived notions and prejudices into a courtroom, this could literally happen to anyone.

Tags: Women

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