(WOMENSENEWS)– My long involvement in our often archaic and biased judicial system is a journey that should never have been necessary in the face of abuse that should never have occurred.
Not much has changed since my battles began, and the myth that mothers make more false allegations of abuse than fathers during divorce and custody battles still holds sway in too many courtrooms. This remains true even though the American Bar Association reports fathers are far more likely than mothers to make intentionally false accusations (21 percent compared to1.3 percent). Change, dramatic change, is needed now, to end these tragic outcomes.
At the outset, I had full custody of my little girl and her father had limited visits twice a week.
But after raising sexual abuse allegations against her father, and spending three years in the family court trying to protect my daughter, I was reduced to one-hour-a-week supervised visits for eight years and treated as if I were a hardened criminal. This was all due to a custody evaluator’s opinion through an “ex-parte” (a hearing without all the parties present). That evaluator cited Dr. Richard Gardner’s debunked “parental alienation syndrome” and left out all medical reports, police reports and pre-school teacher reports.
The ordeal began the day I took my beautiful little girl Ami, freshly bathed, with her dark hair in a high ponytail and wearing a pink dress, to her day care center. On the way I imagined how her father would pick her up for his three-hour visitation that afternoon.
That evening, I went to his house to pick up Ami. I knocked and waited until he finally came to the door. He waved me in and said he would get Ami. As I waited, I noticed that Ami’s beautiful clothes were strewn about the living room floor.
When he brought her down, Ami was wet, nude and limp in his arms. Her arms dangled at her sides, her ponytail was out of its band and her hair was matted. She was soaked with sweat. My heart sank and my gut pulled tight. “What happened to her?” I asked him. He looked at me with a strange smirk. That may have been the first time he abused our daughter. And that terrible sight of him carrying her down the stairs limp in his arms would wake me out of sleep over and over, causing me to sit straight up in my bed shocked and horrified.
No words can express what it is like to realize your child is being sexually abused. My precious little girl would tell me and others about unimaginable things that were happening to her that made my heart feel like it was getting ripped out. But trying to stop the abuse was like fighting a hydra-headed monster.
Each year, 58,500 children who seek protection from abuse through the U.S. family courts are ordered into the custody of a violent or sexually abusive parent.
A mother risks losing custody when she fights to protect her child from the child’s abusive father. These cases then get turned against her. Research published in 1999 in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse found that when a father wants custody he wins it 70 percent of the time. When a parent is accused of child abuse by the protective parent the abuser gains full or partial custody 90 percent of the time. And where there is domestic violence, the court tends to overlook the fact that these abuses were perpetrated by the same man.
This abuse of the child becomes part of the overall abuse scenario, complicating and magnifying the pain as the abuser gains control of the child while losing control of the mother in the divorce. The people who are supposed to be protecting these children (judges, custody evaluators, court appointed specialists, social workers) are failing miserably.
When the child resists going with the abuser and the mother asks the family court to protect the child, the mother is often cast as the one in the wrong, said to be alienating the child from the father. This so-called parental alienation syndrome, concocted to create compassion for fathers accused of pedophilia, has been debunked as junk science but remains influential in the courts. It has helped abusers retain custody and subjected mothers who make the accusations to gag orders, jail sentences and loss of custody.
When I went through this over 20 years ago I didn’t know any of this. I had no indication of what was happening. I lost courtroom battle after courtroom battle. The more I fought the system the more time the father got with my daughter. And this was in the face of physical evidence of his sexual abuse in doctor reports, hospital reports, police reports and day care provider and pre-school teacher reports. All of these were either ignored or suppressed by the court. Worst of all Ami, the child being abused, had no voice. My child was not heard!
After I lost custody in 1992, I was asked to testify before Congress with 10 other mothers who had cases like mine. Each one of those women could have been telling my story. I finally saw I was not alone. There are thousands of these cases. That day I was empowered and vowed to never stop fighting this great injustice.
I managed to hold myself together psychologically so I couldn’t be labeled hysterical, vindictive or inept in any way, but it did not matter. Women will be labeled as crazy, hysterical, dishonest, lying, coaching the child. If women in my situation show their distress they are called emotional and unstable. If they are stoical they are described as lacking emotion and insincere. I truly felt that if we had been living in another time, this would have been a “Salem Witch Hunt” and I surely would have been burned alive at the stake.
I paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, therapy and evaluations. I was ordered to pay the abuser’s attorney fees and child support. Left with only one hour a week of contact with my child, I was beyond devastation. And my poor little girl must have felt abandoned by her maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who were barred by the courts from seeing her. My daughter was isolated and silenced. The abusing parent gained complete control of her life. Imagine her pain and my anguish.
I got my daughter back after eight years of supervised visits when she was 12. I never regained custody but when she was 13 I was finally allowed 50 percent shared time.
Most mothers who go through court battles like mine can’t bear the pain of supervised visits and other barriers to their children. They can’t bear not being able to protect their children. They expend themselves in all directions and become emotionally and financially depleted. If they try to run with the child, they will face pursuit by the FBI and the risk of prison. The stress and pain is more than unbearable. I have watched mothers go to jail, commit suicide and die inside every day.
I am so sorry to say this is still going on. My story is one of hardship and pain. It is also one of fighting for what is right, making a difference and getting this information out to the world.
Maralee McLean is the author of “Prosecuted but Not Silenced: Courtroom Reform for Sexually Abused Children.” She is also a spokesperson for this cause, testifying before Congress, speaking with media and at conferences and doing legislative work and child advocacy, and is an expert witness on domestic violence and child abuse.
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