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.



Cassey Ward and her sister Carla Janes in happier times

Do you feel that times — and the legal atmosphere — have changed when it comes to gay parents in custody battles today?

Scharlau: Yes and no. I think that gay and lesbian parents have definitely seen advances in recent years, and in many places there are laws in place that would make the outcome of this case different. Yet in many states that is not the case.  I live in a state where until recently it was illegal for gays and lesbians to adopt. Other states have either established or are looking to establish similar constitutional amendments. We like to think that something like this couldn’t happen today, but I was surprised during the process of making this documentary by how many people came forward and shared their stories with me of similar situations that they are currently going through.

With regards to LGBT equality in general, I truly believe with all the mainstream visibility the LGBT community has recently experienced, there has been a backlash. And in some ways, I feel things are getting worse as the issues become more front and center. In our documentary, Susan Walch — a professor who specifically studies homophobia in the Florida panhandle — made a very interesting observation when she said, "A lot of people think we’ve come a long way in terms of tolerance for gay and lesbian individuals, that historically speaking levels of homophobia were much higher than they are now, and the reality is that surveys and polls that have been done over time don’t really support that claim. What makes our society homophobic? They still see homosexuality as abhorrent, abnormal, sinful, disgusting, and all of those kinds of negative evaluations."

Carmichael: I still think it is a slippery slope for us out there on every front. We have made progress, but not enough. Why are we having this discussion in 2012?

What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

Carmichael: I hope the audience walks away mad — so mad that it makes them stand up and be proud of who they are and who they love. My partner and I were denied a marriage license last year in New York by a small-minded town clerk, and after spending so much time working on this documentary, I was livid by her actions and immediately went to People for the American Way, who helped us get the story out. I was not going to be denied my civil rights.

Scharlau: I hope that audiences will have a better understanding of how the family court system does and does not work — that they can see it can be terribly flawed. A family judge has great leeway in their decisions when they say that something is in the best interest of the child — they can bring all their prejudices, preconceived notions, and feelings to the courtroom.  

And I really hope that the film makes people mad and that they can take that anger and do something positive. If this film can make a handful of people get more involved in the community, in assuring that all people are treated with dignity and respect and all have the same rights and privileges, then I would be more than satisfied.

Unfit: Ward v. Ward has been accepted into more than 30 film festivals across the country, both LGBT-specific and general festivals. The film is next scheduled to screen at the Mississippi International Film Festival in Jackson and at the Mount Hood Independent Film Festival in Hood River, Ore., on Saturday. For a full list of upcoming screenings, click here. The film was produced by FOMO Films, started by Scharlau and Carmichael as a vehicle to develop socially conscious projects and films.

Carmichael and Scharlau are currently drafting a screenplay about Mary Ward's life. Both filmmakers live in Miami Beach, Fla. Carmichael and her wife have been together for 10 years, and Scharlau and his partner have been together for nine years. In 2007 the couple had their union blessed by their church, since Florida does not permit legal same-sex marriage.

For more information about Unfit: Ward v. Ward, visit

Tags: Women