November 26, 2012

PRINCE McLEOD RAMS, age 151 / 2 months, was taken off life support after being declared brain-dead at 8:38 p.m. Oct. 21 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. A day earlier, paramedics had found him unresponsive, cold and without a pulse at his father’s home in Manassas, where he had been on his fourth unsupervised visit permitted by Montgomery County Circuit Court amid a bitter custody battle. His mother had fiercely opposed unsupervised visits. “If anything happens to Prince, he can’t say anything. He’s not old enough to be talking,” Hera McLeod of Gaithersburg testified at a court hearing on July 12.

The cause of Prince’s death is yet to be determined. Officials at Prince William Hospital, where the boy was first brought on Oct. 20, notified Child Protective Services, citing, according to records, “obvious unexplainable injuries.”

Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert said a criminal investigation is underway. The probe, a spokesman for the Manassas police confirmed, is being coordinated with an investigation into the 2003 murder of the father’s ex-girlfriend, with whom he had a child, and apparently new questioning about the 2008 death, ruled a suicide, of his mother. The father, Joaquin S. Rams, did not return calls in recent days seeking comment.

It’s not known yet whether Prince’s death could have been prevented, but the case should cause soul-searching by officials in Montgomery County family court who lifted supervision of the toddler’s visits and by Prince William law enforcement agencies who investigated earlier incidents involving the father. “A faulty and callous legal system,” Prince’s grandfather wrote the judge, sent the boy to a death that was “at best . . . neglect. At worst . . . murder.”

Whether or not the grandfather’s suspicions prove to be founded, there is an all-too-typical script to family court battles: Distraught mothers often are dismissed, and seemingly competent fathers overvalued, by courts understandably reluctant to deny parents access to their children. Women who warn of danger are seen as vengeful or “crying wolf.” Traumatized by abuse, many of them don’t make ideal witnesses. Fathers pleading to be a part of their children’s lives are welcomed as a refreshing change from the deadbeat dads courts are accustomed to.

These stories play out in courts that are often seen as undesirable by the people who work there. “I’m in Family Law because I have to be. It’s a required 18-month rotation. I don’t like it. And if I could choose not to do it, I would not do it,” said Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Algeo, who oversaw the custody battle over Prince, on March 14.

Ms. McLeod, an intelligence analyst for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, met Mr. Rams through an online matchmaking service in February 2010. She became pregnant in October, and the couple became engaged in December and she moved in with him. On July 17, 2011, two weeks after Prince’s birth, Ms. McLeod’s sister, then 19, said Mr. Rams forced her to have sex. He countered it was consensual. Ms. McLeod moved out, hired an investigator and sought custody of their newborn.

It turned out there was much about Mr. Rams she had not known. At the custody proceeding, a Manassas police detective testified that Mr. Rams was a suspect in the still-unsolved 2003 murder of his ex-girlfriend Shawn Katrina Mason because he had motive and opportunity. Mr. Rams testified that he is innocent. A report by a Prince William social worker noted that Mr. Rams believed himself (wrongly) to be the beneficiary of Ms. Mason’s life insurance policy.

Mr. Rams acknowledged that adult pornography was produced in his home. He lived, according to information presented in court, on Social Security benefits to his other son and savings from his mother’s life insurance policy. “It seems,” Ms. McLeod’s attorney told the court in November 2011, “that people around him . . . sometimes die under mysterious circumstances.”

Judge Algeo awarded Ms. McLeod sole legal and primary physical custody of Prince in March. A court evaluator had concluded that her safety concerns were justifiable, and a retired Montgomery County police officer was appointed to supervise weekly, three-hour visits at a county mall. Just months later, Mr. Rams was allowed unsupervised, all-day visits at the Virginia home he shared with his other son and the couple that owned the property.

Any review has the benefit of hindsight, and investigators have yet to conclude what role, if any, neglect or intent played in Prince’s death. But hours of court testimony and pages of documents reveal unsettling issues about the decision to allow unsupervised visits.

For the psychological evaluation, why was Mr. Rams allowed to pick a psychologist who specializes in working with children with autism-spectrum disorders and who belongs to the same practice as the therapist who works with Mr. Rams and his older son? Was there, as an expert called by Ms. McLeod testified, a failure to conduct tests that could more properly identify possible risks? Should the court evaluator who found safety risks in March have been consulted again before the child was taken out of state to a home that had not received a site visit?

Judge Algeo, through a spokesman, declined comment, citing judicial canons. It’s apparent from transcripts of the June 29 and July 12 court hearings that he was reassured by testimony from the retired police officer, who saw no problems during the supervised visits and expressed no concerns. He was pleased with Mr. Rams’s claims of having a job and taking down a pornography Web site, noting, “He has done what I asked him to do.”

Ms. McLeod has started a blog to call out those who she believed failed her baby and to call attention to a broken system that trusted her enough to give her legal and physical custody of a child but didn’t trust her warnings of danger. “The courts refused to treat me like anything but a vengeful woman,” she said. Tragically, she now believes she has cause to be one.