Women and Children in Court

Did you guys know that the New Yorker runs True Crime stories? It’s true. Maybe once or twice a month the smartypantses will publish a beautifully written, carefully researched, and thoughtfully interpreted tale of grizzly murder.

A few years back, I was captivated by Janet Malcolm’s reporting on Mazoltuv Borukhova, the Queens woman convicted of hiring a hit man to kill her ex-husband after a judge awarded custody of their daughter to him. Malcolm turned the courtroom drama into a book, which I haven’t read but want to. If I can stomach it. Which I’m not sure I can.

This all came back to me because in the last few New York Review of Bookses, Malcolm updates us on Michelle. Who? Michelle. Michelle Malakova. The daughter.


OK, there’s a lot going on here. More, even, than what’s in a book. In short: the parents’ divorce was acrimonious. Their community is suspiciously insular (Orthodox Jewish! Russian-speaking! Central-Asian ancestry!). During the custody trial, the mother accused the father of sexually abusing the girl and physically abusing her. The hit man shot the dad at the playground, with the kid watching. Prosecutors were brutal. The defense team was ill-equipped. The child’s law guardian (the person charged with representing the kid’s interests during legal proceedings, but in this case, um,) was violently biased against the mother and, to boot, obsessed with elaborate and racist conspiracy fantasies.

The jury thought the mom’s behavior at trial was cold (foreign?) enough to convict her on basically that alone. Plus some phone calls to the hit man. She didn’t go to some of the trial because she’d have had to spend a week at a time at Riker’s Island, which didn’t provide the right kind of kosher food—an aspect of strict Jewish observance that even secular Jews would find confounding. And that a jury might find condemning.

That’s my “short” version. Here’s the shorter version: She was convicted because she’s not quite American in manner, behavior, and dress. And she’s a woman. And our society is particularly hostile to “bad” moms.

OK. But did you catch that part in the middle of my summary? That Borukhova accused Malakov of molesting their daughter? Here’s what happened: she said she saw him, during a diaper change, kissing the baby’s genitals.

And here’s the kicker: he didn’t deny it. He said he was innocently showing his affection for her. Which is. I can’t even.

And here’s the kickingest kicker of all: This has absolutely nothing to do with anyone’s sense of justice or truth. With anyone’s public attitudes about what is right for Borukhova, who was convicted and therefore guilty, or for her daughter.

Here’s why a judge originally granted the dad full custody of the girl he probably did, in fact molest: because during supervised visits with him, the kid clung to her mom and fought any kind of interaction with her dad. The judge blamed the mom’s “smothering” for this, and put the kid full time with this dad she hated visiting.

So the jury convicts the mom because they believe she’d take revenge on the ex for getting full custody that he didn’t even want? That she’s selfish and self-involved enough to murder her competition for full control of her kid? Jury comments quoted in these articles suggest that this was their attitude. They took only 6 hours of deliberation.

They did not convict her for killing the man who was sexually abusing her daughter and was given by the judge full access to keep on doing it whenever he wanted.

It wasn’t relevant.

That’s probably because her defense team was ill-equipped, for whatever reason. It wasn’t relevant to the case because they didn’t bring it up as relevant during trial. Which confounds me. But I’m not a lawyer. Nor am I a professional social services person, etc. etc. and maybe there’s some stuff I just don’t know. But it really does seem to me that a dad who goes down on his toddler for “love” of her? And says so out loud?

Anyway, cut to the now: the poor kid has been shuffled around tarnation, forced to stay with the dad’s side of the family because the legal establishment’s bias against the mom has spread to the mom’s whole family as “accomplices to the crime,” despite the fact that they want to adopt the girl, love her, shower her with affection and nurturing. Despite multiple social workers’ reports that the girl is clearly happier with them. Thriving, even.

The easy thing to say here is that our family court system is farkakte. And endemically stacked against mothers who don’t fit our ideals. And that sexual abuse is common enough to be invisible, even when my fool ass way over in Denver believes it’s central to the whole tragedy.

None of these things are actually easy to say. But they are easy conclusions to draw from these facts.

I am astonished that he admitted to kissing his toddler daughter’s genitals and no one gave a damn. And that a world of judges and social workers did not factor that into the decision to put the kid into that same family that produced a father who thought this was OK fatherly behavior. That so many people are so biased against this mother, who surprised social workers by being so “appropriate” with the girl during her visits. For being a good mom. So many people are so suspicious of this strange mom that they ignore what’s clearly in the child’s best interests: to live with her maternal relatives. The ones that are actually nice to her.

The whole thing is heartbreaking. But it reveals so much about our criminal and family justice systems. And our attitudes towards women and girls.

Borukhova herself has refused to be interviewed for any of this. So we are left to guessing at so much of her story.

But I don’t blame her.

There’s so little she can do to save herself. Or her daughter.

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2 thoughts on “Women and Children in Court

  1. Melissa says:

    I remember this story in the New Yorker. It was horrifying. Yes to everything you have said. Yes! That part about how the judge awarded custody to the dad BECAUSE the girl preferred her mom is troubling to any person who has been the child in a custody dispute. The whole story is and was insane. I don’t think I could read the book either.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thank you. You are right! Also, think how much more trapped DV victims feel if they think the system will treat them and their kids this way. I knew a woman who worked hard to keep her kids away from the system. It appears she was right.

      The levels of bias against the mom that Malcolm reported truly stun me. And that they persist now in how Michelle is treated by the judges involved in her case stuns me more!!

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