The Need for Family Court Reform: One Mom’s Story
This special guest post was authored and provided to Moms Fight Back by Maralee McLean. In her book, Prosecuted but Not Silenced: Courtroom Reform for Sexually Abused Children, Maralee McLean shares her own legal and personal journey to try to protect her daughter from her ex-husband and his alleged sexual abuse. She faced barriers at every turn and her ex-husband ultimately won custody. Her efforts to seek justice produced outcomes that would make many protective mothers question whether to travel her path.
Imagine trying to protect your child to find them only taken away…
This is happening in courtrooms across the country and internationally. When an unsuspecting mother reports abuse believes her child’s cries and the child discloses sexual abuse she is devastated. She believes her child will be protected when in reality she finds herself on trial.
Women who seek to protect their children in our family courts are losing custody to the abuser. Research shows sexually abused children are placed in full or partial custody of their identified abuser 90% of the time.This travesty is occurring in epidemic proportions and is happening in every state in our country. Good, loving mothers, who believe their child’s disclosure and cries for help, are forced into the justice system to protect their children and are then placed in a “Catch 22” situation. When the mother places her child’s safety in the hands of the court the welfare of the child is routinely reduced to a custody battle or a high conflict case. In reality, the abuse of the child is a criminal act and does not belong in family court. These cases stay in family court for months and years never getting to the bottom of the child’s disclosures or the evidence of abuse. In most of these cases domestic violence is prevalent. The abuser uses coercive control to manipulate the key players such as custody evaluators, social workers, lawyers and judges to his advantage to take her children away. He now has gained the control that he lost in the divorce and can successfully use court litigation to continue the abuse.
Since the early 1980’s courts have been using Richard Gardner’s theory of “Parental Alienation Syndrome” (PAS) which is debunked science and not approved by the American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association. PAS should not be allowed in the courts, however the courts are still using the theory and labeling these mothers with PAS. Using PAS has become a way for the abuser to gain custody and thwart all evidence of abuse. The safety of the child should be paramount, yet the child is not being protected. Furthermore the mothers are not protected from protracted litigation by the abuser who uses the courts to continue the abuse emotionally, financially and the ultimate of abuse is receiving custody of the children they are harming. The women I am referring to number in the thousands. I happen to be one of them.
There are no words to express the constant heartache that is felt as each day passes by, to not be able to protect your child from one of the worst crimes imaginable. We call these women protective moms, but they are heroes fighting the worst battle any one can endure. Most do not make it through the nightmare. Their human rights are violated and due process is denied by no evidentiary hearings, and ex-parte hearings. These good, loving mothers are going to jail, constrained by gag orders, and contact with their child is reduced to supervised visits. By the end of litigation they are ordered, in most cases, to pay all court costs, evaluator fees and attorney fees. The child support is typically at a much higher rate than what the father was paying the mother prior to litigation. The punishment for these loving mothers is unbearable. I hear their cries everyday as an advocate, national spokesperson and author.
I am a domestic violence survivor and my case began in the late 1980’s when PAS was first used in our courts. I had full custody of my little girl and at the age of two and half she disclosed sexual abuse by her father to me and to her daycare providers. No matter how much evidence was documented and filed with the courts and how many times she cried for help, the court allowed unsupervised visitation. The more evidence on abuse the more time she was granted visits with her father the courts increasing to more overnights and weekend privileges. During these times the father continued to rape my daughter and, over the years, the crimes elevated to worse, unspeakable trespasses against her person and psyche. Eventually, through misguided court policy, he gained full custody.
I never stopped trying to protect her and was in court for weeks, months and years. By the time she reached four years of age there were three police reports stating abuse, and three doctor reports stating medical evidence and the judge refused to allow the evidence in court. The top doctors in the State of Colorado from the Childs Advocacy and Protection Team at Children’s Hospital reported medical evidence of sexual abuse and that my child was not safe. The Child’s Advocacy Team of doctors wrote a letter to the judge to please contact them concerning the sexual abuse of my child. I testified before Congress, worked on legislation and had lots of news coverage on my case including CNN International News and was still unable to protect my daughter.
When I lost her to the abuser I was only allowed to see her one hour a week for eight years. I was treated as a criminal my only crime “Mother Love”. Two therapists wrote a report that I had PAS and quoted Gardner’s theory throughout their evaluation. PAS was invoked and Dr Gardner was paid by the courts in my case. These two therapists asked the judge for an Emergency ex-parte hearing without my knowledge and without me being present. These Ex-Parte hearings allow no due process. The record of this proceeding shows it was devoid of truth and fact, omitting all evidence of abuse of my child.
My daughter suffered tremendously from being taken from me. The one person she thought would protect her had failed. She could not understand why she could only see her mom one hour a week, in an 8×10 foot room, accompanied by a strange man who monitored every conversation. Sometimes she would say, “Mommy, I just want to die”. She was not allowed to see her loving grandparents whom she dearly loved, or any member of my family, or anyone who knew of the abuse. She was forced into complete isolation, traumatized and silenced.
Of all the moms in similar situations that I was in contact with at the time, most of them have no relationship with their child today. I believe staying in the supervised visits is crucial, however painful, for the child and for the mother. My daughter hung on to me and we never gave up. She would say, “I fly to your house at night. I am on the window sill I am with you always mommy”. I got her back at the age of twelve after eight years of supervised visits. Today she is dissociative but we are very close. The damage the court system did is irreparable and the ACE Study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Research by Dr. Vincent Feletti (1995 – 1997), is an important research to show the damage that is being done and the true toll this is taking on society as a whole.
Every year I speak at the International Battered Mothers Conference, and women who attend are depleted financially, emotionally and beyond devastation but are making it to the conference. I tell them that when I was trying to protect my child we did not have the internet or books which provide a wealth of information to help protective mothers (see suggested readings below). Nor did we have the connections to the professionals as Dr. Dan Saunders Study on Child Custody Evaluators and Judges which is with U.S. Department of Justice which clearly states the lack of training on domestic violence and child abuse. I tell the mothers who are currently fighting for their children to, “Take a look at the mother sitting next to you and look in her eyes; there is no one who can understand this pain but another mother. You have each other so you need to stick together and help each other because these women are your best advocates and you are your own child’s best advocate.”
As documented in the US Department of Justice Study by Dr. Daniel Saunders (2012), only a few judges and custody evaluators are properly trained. There needs to be more efficient training.
These cases need to be in criminal court with jury trials and judges, trained on domestic violence and child abuse. A child’s safety comes first.
Suggested further reading:
Barry Goldstein and Mo Therese Hannah, “Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Child Custody”, Civic Research Institute, 2010
Lundy Bancroft, “The Batterer as a Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics”, 2015,
Maralee Mclean, “Prosecuted But Not Silenced” (Courtroom Reform for Sexually Abused Children”, Tate Publishing 2013.