My Brother the Slumlord

Going public is something Amy Neustein never could resist

She was referring to a battle with the co-op board, in part over their inaction in fixing leaky roofs.


Amy Neustein lost custody of her daughter, Sherry Orbach, in October 1986, just months after she accused her husband, Ozzie Orbach, of sexually abusing the girl. Orbach had filed a custody suit for Sherry a few weeks prior to Amy's allegations.

Between August 1987 and 1992, the case was featured in more than 30 television and radio programs and in more than 60 editorials and news articles. In 1988, Amy appeared on the shows of Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessy Raphael, and on CNN. The year before, Time featured her in an article about women who had lost custody of their children. Congressman Jerry Nadler, who held a hearing on her behalf, called it a cover-up, saying, "No case is more galling." A senior aide to David Paterson, then a state senator from Harlem, said she had never witnessed a greater travesty of justice. Major Owens, the chairman of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Select Education, said he was concerned that the Neustein case represented "a massive, tragic failure of the institutions which are charged with protecting innocent children."

At the center of the case was something Neustein's mother claimed to have seen: Orbach moving in a way that suggested he was rubbing his daughter inappropriately. The girl, then six, was sent to the Ohel Children's Home, a Jewish foster care agency in Brooklyn, for two years. But after hearing testimonies from multiple experts, the court determined that the grandmother's testimony was faulty and that Sherry had been coached to make her own false allegations of abuse. (Psychologists pointed to evidence of coaching in statements by Sherry that were simply impossible for her to witness, such as how her father, a doctor, mistreated patients in the hospital, or beat her mother while Sherry was still in the womb. Only one of at least six psychologists who interviewed Sherry thought she might actually have been abused.)

In 1988, custody was given to Orbach. Around that time, Sherry became anorexic. She weighed 44 pounds, which was severely underweight for an eight-year-old girl. Neustein continues to claim that Sherry's anorexia was a result of the abuse she was suffering in her father's home. (Her father had been concerned enough about Sherry's weight loss to seek his own medical advice.)

One day, in 1989, Neustein broke visitation regulations and whisked Sherry to the pediatrics center at Kings County Hospital. It was a last-ditch attempt, she says, to save Sherry's life. (While doctors agreed that Sherry was emaciated and malnourished, and some said she was in danger of dying, a Kings County pediatrician concluded that Orbach hadn't been neglectful of Sherry by keeping her at home. Orbach also tells the Voice that he had been advised against hospitalizing Sherry: Her weight wasn't low enough to require it, and many anorexics resist treatment if hospitalized against their will.) Because Neustein had violated custody regulations when she took Sherry to the hospital, the court suspended visitation permanently. Neustein hasn't seen her daughter since.

When Neustein hospitalized Sherry, a columnist at USA Today wrote, "Little Sherry Neustein is crying out for help by starving herself to death." The New York Post contributed a number of "Save Sherry" columns as well.

Following the hospitalization, Neustein continued to publicize her case, and many women's rights groups championed her cause. She claimed she was not allowed to bring experts to testify in court and that the judge was hostile to any allegations of sex abuse (Orbach was never prosecuted for abuse). To prove her point, she gave the Voice some photographs of Sherry in poses that she called "child erotica." (To an untrained eye, however, the poses don't look out of the ordinary for a girl of that age.)

Three years after she lost custody, Neustein says she learned that Sherry had recently lost 11 pounds. She called on Paterson and Nadler to hold a press conference, and they agreed. Paterson also wrote a letter to the Justice Department, asking the agency to look into the case.

"Every doctor I spoke to said, 'Kidnap her,' " says Neustein. "I said, 'I can't do that.' So the next best thing was a press conference." She adds that if that press conference hadn't happened, Sherry would not be alive today.

At the conference, advocates for Neustein showed four-year-old pictures of Sherry suffering from anorexia, but a relative of the Orbachs showed more recent photos of the girl dancing and looking happy at her recent bat mitzvah.

Veteran NPR reporter Margot Adler attended the Paterson press conference and later produced a piece about the case for All Things Considered. Adler recalls the entire experience as being disorienting, especially considering the different ways Sherry was being portrayed: "The kid was totally mute. She was described on the one hand as a kid who was emaciated and anorexic, and on the other, she was having a bat mitzvah, dancing." She added, "The more I found out, the more I said, 'Whoa, this is a little weird.' "

Many observers expressed frustration that no one could access information about the case beyond what was provided by either side—and for years, no official with direct involvement was permitted to speak on the record (except for a Legal Aid worker who testified that her superiors showed open dislike for Amy). Ozzie Orbach himself refused to speak to the media about the case. He did, however, send thousands of pages of court documents to Paterson and many journalists. (As did Amy.) His sister, Fran, who has remained close to Sherry over the years, and [Amy's brother-in-law] Martin Berger, often spoke in Orbach's stead.

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