Harrison, Garnett

Rose Norman interviewed Garnett Harrison by phone on November 16th, 2012.

Biographical Information

Garnett Harrison was born and raised in Greenwood, MS. She now lives in Jacksonville, FL, and works in Kingsland, GA. In 1975, Garnett received her BA in History from Millsaps College. Afterwards, Garnett entered the JD Jackson School of Law at Mississippi College in 1975. That same year, she founded the Jackson Rape Crisis Center - the first of its kind in Mississippi. She also founded her law school's Women''s Student Bar.

Background on the Legal Cases

In the 1980s, despite vastly increased numbers of legal complaints of child sexual abuse against fathers, women making these complaints almost never won in court. Judges sided with the accused fathers time and again. When this happened in two cases, decided a day apart, argued by the same attorney before the same judge, that attorney took it to the media and was subsequently harassed and eventually disbarred in the state of Mississippi. Garnett Harrison was in her early 30s and had been practicing family law in Gulfport, MS, since 1978 when she took the two child custody cases that would lead to her disbarment and exile from her home state. So much was written about the child custody and sexual abuse cases of Dorrie Singley and Karen Newsom at the time that Harrison isn’t eager to go over that ground again. You can read about it in the article Freedom Fighter (1994) or in media coverage at the time, from People Magazine (January 23, 1989) to Ms. Magazine (December 1988), and in academic books like Louise Armstrong’s Rocking the Cradle of Sexual Politics: What Happened When Women Said Incest (1994).

Dorrie Singley and Karen Newsom were two divorced women who didn’t know each other before they came to Harrison, at different times and under different circumstances, to represent them in attempts to protect their small children from sexual molestation by their ex-husbands during his visitations. Their cases came before the same Mississippi judge, Sebe Dale, Jr., and both cases led to the judge revoking their custody and awarding custody to the fathers accused of molesting their children. Harrison filed emergency appeals in both cases to the Mississippi Supreme Court in August of 1987. Both were denied. The press releases issued at the time of those emergency appeals cases were the first public comment made about either case, and they made front page headlines throughout the state. It was the first time that child sexual abuse was openly discussed in front page headlines. The press release opened, "We are here today to make public two cases of child sexual abuse where children have been denied a safe and secure home."

Karen Newsom, a schoolteacher, put her two children in hiding (Katy Newsom, age 3½ and Adam Newsom, age 2) and went to jail for contempt of court rather than give them up to her ex-husband. At the end of August, there was a court hearing on Dorrie Singley’s case. When she refused to appear in court, a warrant was issued for her arrest. It was at that point that national press appeared. Both CNN and the New Orleans Times Picayune were present. The court closed the hearing to the public. Dorrie Singley and her daughter, Chrissy Foxworth (then 5 years old), both went into hiding. After 43 days in jail, Karen Newsom was released from jail after revealing the whereabouts of her children and naming the people who had sheltered them. She dismissed Harrison. Newsom gave hours of testimony before she was allowed to be released. Thereafter, Newsom was allowed to see her children once a week for ninety minutes, at their father’s house.

Later that same month (October 1987), Dorrie Singley died of a ruptured brain aneurysm while in hiding in New Orleans. Her daughter surfaced in California that December, and was returned to Mississippi in custody of her paternal grandparents, with unlimited visitation by her father. This was contrary to the written agreement made by the courts when the child was returned from California to Mississippi. Several appeals were made in the Singley case. It was “the only case in the country where a Chancery Court Judge and a Youth Court Referee had been found guilty of having violated a child’s constitutional rights of access to the court and procedural due process” (quoting Harrison’s 1991 legal appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court over her disbarment). Harrison doesn’t know what became of Chrissy Foxworth. An internet search reveals only that her legal advocates lost their appeal to a federal court in July 1993, and Chrissy, then age 11, was ordered to custody of her father.

A social movement grew up around these legal cases. Mothers Against Raping Children (MARC) was formed in August 1987 out of a support group for women that met in Harrison’s law office. When information about MARC appeared in the Atlanta Constitution, Fay Yeager read about it and phoned Harrison. That’s when Yeager became involved in Sanctuary (“A Fund for the Defense of Sexually Abused Children and Their Protectors”), ultimately becoming one of the engineers of the Underground Railroad protecting children whom courts had turned over to fathers accused of abuse.

It was Harrison’s legal advocacy, public outcry against the legal system, civilly disobedient clients and political organizing that resulted in a civil contempt warrant, federal grand juries, and ultimately her disbarment. That and the fact that Judge Dale seems to have believed that Harrison was complicit in her clients’ civil disobedience and in the hiding of the children, which (had it been true) would have been grounds for disbarment. In the fall of 1987, it became clear to Harrison that she was herself the target of various legal maneuvers too complicated to summarize (but spelled out in detail in the appeal she filed after her disbarment). American Lawyer calls Harrison “a hell-raising Gulfport lawyer” and goes into detail about the complex and confusing events associated with the two cases, the underground movement, and MARC (May 1988, 104-10.) Here is a paragraph from Harrison’s appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court over her disbarment:

“Harrison had not represented civilly disobedient clients before in her law practice. Harrison did not understand the serious consequences which occur when clients become publicly defiant and are incarcerated. Harrison was worried about the effects of incarceration on Karen and further wanted to protect herself, should Karen’s will be broken and her word change. Harrison was attempting to avoid a lawyer’s worst nightmare, a client who lies and turns against her.” (p 12)

When Karen Newsom broke and gave up the location of her children, the judge made her release from jail contingent on her revealing everything she knew about where her children had been since she sent them into hiding. She was deposed for five hours before being released. She was repeatedly questioned about her relationship with Harrison (in violation of attorney-client privilege), was forced to incriminate herself and others, and was granted no immunity for her testimony. Harrison’s legal appeal describes the deposition as “a coerced confession in the truest sense of the word” (p 15).

Both the Newsom and the Singley case had strong evidence of child sexual abuse. In the Newsom case there was documented physical evidence, which was rare in a child sexual abuse case. One of the most profound aspects of the Newsom case was the role of the Guardian ad Litem, Attorney Eric Lowery. Eric Lowery filed a motion to reopen the case accusing Karen Newsom and Garnett Harrison of fabricating the child sexual abuse. Eric Lowery brought an individual with no identification, to the courtroom to testify against them. His name was “John Ireland.” Numerous witnesses testified that he had a different name. He was never required to present any identification. Judge Dale found that Karen Newsom and Garnett Harrison had fabricated the abuse, based on the perjured testimony of John Ireland. This was affirmed by the Mississippi Supreme Court. This was after Karen Newsom was released from jail.

The fathers who got custody were never charged with molesting their children, and the Underground Railroad was active for many years before things began to change. Since that time, thanks to the media attention to the problem, the old boy network that protected abusers has been weakened. It has been much harder for judges to ignore child molestation charges in divorce and child custody cases.

In an unpublished profile of Garnett Harrison, written for New Directions for Women in 1988, Judith Brown says of Harrison: “I’ve heard feminists talk about doing feminist organizing that is inclusive of all of the potential allies for women’s liberation. But the first time I saw it done was in Mississippi by Garnett and her colleagues” (pp 11-12 of the unpublished manuscript).

What drew you into practicing family law and working on issues of domestic violence and rape?

In 1975, I had read about rape in Ladies Home Journal, was a member of NOW, and was motivated by things like the Mississippi law requiring rape victims to take a lie detector test. I got a VISTA grant and founded a rape crisis center in Jackson, MS. I was about 22 then, married with a small child. I thought I knew a lot about incest and child sexual abuse, and was upset about how women were being treated. I identified with the powerless.

In 1978, I finished law school and started working with Legal Services. I found that I liked family law because it really made a big difference in the lives of women and children. Women really didn’t have a voice then, and I could give them their day in court and hold batterers accountable.

About 1979 I got divorced and had custody of my daughter. At this time I was volunteering at battered women shelters, and representing battered women in court. I identified with them, enjoyed representing them. It gave me a lot of courage.

Throughout the South, a core of women were working on domestic violence. They knew they needed to change the law to get battered women into court sooner. So I wrote the legislation, lobbied for it, and got it passed in 1983. The next year, I got the idea for funding the shelters with a fee on marriage licenses. The court clerks resisted that approach, because they used marriage licenses as gifts. [But it got done anyway.]

I got involved with the Pascagoula abortion clinic when I referred a woman there whose daughter had been raped and impregnated by the woman’s husband (the daughter’s father?). The protestors there upset the girl so bad she couldn’t get the abortion. I represented that clinic against the protestors. It was at this Pascagoula abortion clinic that Operation Rescue learned how to terrorize people, especially by targeting doctors. Dr. George Patterson worked there and was threatened. He was later murdered in Mobile, where he had another clinic. Although the police put the murder down to robbery (it happened outside a movie theatre), his wallet was not stolen, and I am confident that anti-abortionists killed him [Wikipedia says this was in 1993].
It was an inspirational time. I learned a lot about representing people in civil disobedience cases. [wouldn’t it be the protestors being civilly disobedient? later the mothers of abused children. confused here].

In 1986, when my daughter was 12, my ex-husband sued me as a lesbian mother. I would have fought it, but this was the year the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick, criminalizing oral and anal sex in homosexuals, so I believed I would lose unless I settled. My daughter went to live with my ex-husband (who has, in recent years, apologized for doing that to me).

Dorrie Singley and Karen Newsom Cases

In 1987, I represented two mothers, both divorced, both with daughters who had told them their fathers had sexually abused them. Karen Newsom and Dorrie Singley had been tried before the same judge, though not at the same time, and [in both cases?] there was evidence of abuse. I thought the law would protect these woman, but the judge ruled against both of them and ordered their daughters to the custody of the abusive fathers. The legal system had failed. The only thing that would help them was a public outcry, a conclusion I reached from my experience with the civil rights movement in Mississippi. I made the mistake of going from lawyer to community activist, and you just can’t do that. It ultimately led to my being disbarred in Mississippi (1992).

My case was different because of being a targeted lawyer and a lesbian. I think I’m the only lawyer ever disbarred under these circumstances.

Two Transforming Events

1. When my ex-husband sued for custody, it forced me out of the closet. It was painful, but ultimately a good thing, a transforming event.

2. The Newsom and Singley cases got a lot of publicity, and I was outed in the media, again transforming. Initially, I was afraid for my safety, but ultimately it made me become as authentic as I could possibly be. It also made me a survivor.

I ultimately left Mississippi in 1988 because of the warrant against me (lifted in 1991).

What happened to Chrissy Foxworth, Dorrie Singley’s daughter? Singley die while Chrissy was in hiding, and Chrissy wound up in her father’s custody. Later she is said to have recanted her testimony about her father’s abuse.

Chrissy would be 22 or 23 now, but I have not been in touch since that time. Recanting is typical in child abuse cases. It’s called “child accommodation syndrome.”

How did you have the courage to stick your neck out so far in those child custody cases?

Growing up in the Mississippi Delta with haves and have-nots during a time of great change, I saw what civil rights activism could do. When I was nine or ten years old, I witnessed Freedom Fighters coming to Mississippi and doing civil rights demonstrations. SNCC was headquartered in my hometown, Greenwood, Mississippi. I saw injustice to African American men and women. I’m sure it had a profound effect on me. I always aligned with the underdog.

And how are things with you today?

In 2004, I married my partner in Toronto. We’ve now been together twenty-two years. All of that activism was a liberating experience that I’ve never regretted. I acknowledge I did make some mistakes, but none that merited what I received. I have a rich life, and I got a lot of wisdom from those experiences, making me who I am today. I’m not bitter, and I’m fortunate to still be practicing law.

Bibliography

Armstrong, Louise. Rocking the Cradle of Sexual Politics: What Happened When Women Said Incest. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Laurino. M. “Custody Wars: Moms Held Hostage.” Ms. Magazine 17.6 (December 1988): 88-96.
Podesta, Jane Sims, David Van Biema, and Paula Chin. “Running for Their Lives.” People magazine 31.3 (January 23, 1989). http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20119407,00.html
“Two cases that gave birth to a movement.” People Magazine 31.3 (January 23, 1989): 77.
Wilkinson, Francis. “Witchhunting in Hattiesburg.” American Lawyer (May 1988): 104-10.

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