Hera McLeod weeps as she looks at pictures of her deceased son, Prince, in 2013. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

Hera McLeod pleaded with the family court judge to keep her 15-month-old son, Prince, away from her abusive ex-boyfriend. The mother, along with many other witnesses, told the court about the man’s fits of rage, the night he threatened to kill her at gunpoint, the times he allegedly abused his older son and allegedly raped McLeod’s sister.

But the judge said there was insufficient evidence of the alleged abuse by the father, Joaquin Rams. “There’s a lot of smoke,” said the family court judge in Montgomery County, Md. “With all that smoke, I can’t see clearly.”

The court initially ordered supervised visits with the baby’s father, but just months later allowed Rams to keep Prince for unsupervised, all-day visits. Then on the fourth visit, on Oct. 20, 2012, Rams drowned the toddler at a friend’s home in Manassas, Va. He was found guilty of capital murder in 2017.

“You wait until the child has been seriously harmed, and in my case dead, before the evidence reaches the threshold,” McLeod said. “You’re playing Russian roulette with kids’ lives in order to meet this unnecessary burden.”

The highly publicized death of Prince Rams was an extreme case, but it serves as an example of a troubling pattern that domestic-violence experts say plagues child custody disputes: Too often, they assert, family courts deny a mother’s claims of domestic or child abuse and instead place a child in the care of a dangerous parent.

Advocates and lawyers have long shared anecdotal stories like McLeod’s — of women whose abuse claims weren’t believed and whose children were punished instead. But now, a first-of-its-kind study from George Washington University has shed light on how the phenomenon has played out in courts across the country.

The study, written by professor of clinical law Joan S. Meier, shows that mothers who report abuse — particularly child abuse — are losing child custody at staggering rates. To Meier, the data provides a window into what she considers a parallel to the #MeToo movement.

“MeToo was about women never being believed when they reported what was happening to them at work,” Meier said. “Well, this is about women not being believed when they’re reporting what’s happening at home. And it’s the courts . . . a much more troubling venue for disbelief.”

Meier called the pattern a “complete betrayal of the mission” of the courts, which are supposed to prioritize the welfare of children.

“When they are abused, courts protect them less, not more,” said Meier, who will soon launch a National Family Violence Initiative at GW Law. The study was funded through a grant from the National Institute of Justice, the research, development and evaluation agency of the Justice Department.

'Adversarial' justice system

For the study, which has not yet been formally published, Meier and a team of researchers sorted through and coded published court opinions available online between 2005 and 2014, a data set of 4,388 custody cases. They sought to find out the extent to which courts were discrediting claims of abuse and removing custody from the parents claiming the abuse — and the role gender played in these findings. They also examined the impact of allegations in these cases that one parent was trying to “alienate” the child from the other parent.

The study broke down the types of abuse by domestic violence against the mother, child physical abuse and child sexual abuse.

According to the study, courts credited mothers’ reports of fathers’ abuse 36 percent of the time — including allegations of both child abuse and violence against the mother. When it came to child abuse specifically, courts were even less likely to believe mothers’ and children’s claims: 21 percent of the time for child physical abuse and 19 percent of the time for child sexual abuse.

In custody litigation, when mothers reported abuse — including child abuse and domestic violence — the mothers lost custody 28 percent of the time. But when fathers alleged abuse, the fathers lost custody only 12 percent of the time.

“The data in this study is very powerful in showing how much worse mothers had it when they alleged child abuse,” Meier said. “All the dots get connected.”

Even when the father’s abuse is proved in the court, mothers alleging the abuse lost custody 13 percent of the time. But when a mother’s abuse was proved, fathers lost custody only 4 percent of the time — and only in cases where she had abused the father, never where she had abused the child.

“Even when the abuse is credited, women are losing,” Jane Aiken, dean of the School of Law at Wake Forest University, said after reading a copy of the study. “This is about not trusting women. I think it’s very powerful.”

The study also focused on the impact of a controversial claim often used in family courts across the country during custody proceedings — “parental alienation,” or the accusation that a parent is undermining or damaging the relationship between the child and the other parent.

Meier and others have long argued that “alienation” is used overwhelmingly to punish mothers who accuse fathers of abuse. Mothers are often accused of leveling false abuse allegations merely to “alienate” the children from the father, Meier said.

“Women are expected to behave as mothers. But then when they come in and say ‘I’m trying to protect my child,’ then they’re not believed,” Aiken said. “You’re just in a trap, and it’s a gendered trap.”

Meier’s study found that when fathers claim alienation, courts are more than twice as likely to disbelieve mothers’ claims of abuse — either child abuse or abuse against the mother — than if the father made no alienation claim. That factor increases to four times as likely for child abuse cases, in particular.

For child sexual abuse, only 1 out of every 51 cases was believed when a father accused the mother of alienation.

“When you go to court and you report child sexual abuse by the father, you’re done. You’re cooked,” Meier said.

And when fathers claim alienation, the rate at which mothers lose custody shoots up from 26 percent to 44 percent.

Meier’s study also found a gender disparity: When either parent is accused of alienation, mothers have twice the likelihood of losing custody, compared with fathers.

Even when a father contributed to the damaged relationship with his child, mothers frequently get blamed for it, Meier said. Often, she said, it’s on the mother “to pretend he’s a great father, and it’s not on him to repair his damage,” Meier said. “That is what’s so patriarchal.”

But in some cases, there was no gender divide: When a court found that a mother or father was an alienator, in both abuse and non-abuse cases, mothers and fathers lost custody at identical rates.

Meier acknowledged that the findings do not demonstrate that courts’ denials of abuse claims were wrong — only that they are happening at very high rates. And the study has several limitations, Meier said. It primarily analyzed cases that were appealed and that were published online, which is not a fully representative sample of trial court decisions.

The study also raised questions and concerns for Nicholas C. Bala, a law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and an expert on family law who researches issues related to parental alienation.

Bala said the study, while important and credible, does not distinguish between different severities of physical abuse, such as the difference between a shove and a brutal beating. He added that the most severe cases of child abuse don’t even make it to family court — they are handled by the police or child protective services. So the cases in Meier’s study are “already in a gray area” and are a “very skewed kind of sample.”

Still, Bala said Meier’s study highlights important points about a lack of education and training on domestic violence and child abuse in family courts, which he called an “adversarial” justice system.

'I had to be careful'

Despite the limitations of the study, Meier said it provides a rare empirical look at troubling trends that for too long have been merely anecdotal. Previous studies have been limited to single courts or single states, or have failed to factor in child abuse.

Many jurisdictions provide certain protections in custody cases involving domestic violence or abuse, but judges often have the liberty to rebut them. In the District, for example, a statute says that if a judge finds an incident of domestic violence occurred, ­judges shall award visitation only if they find that the “child and custodial parent can be adequately protected from harm inflicted by the other party.”

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) launched a new work group focused on studying how child-custody-court proceedings involving child abuse or domestic violence allegations are affecting children in the state.

One advocate involved in the new work group is McLeod, who often uses her son’s death to call for family court reform. McLeod recalled how, in her custody proceedings, her attorneys advised her to be careful what she said about her son’s father and how much detail to divulge about his abusive behavior.

“I was terrified for my son, but I had to be careful about what I said in court . . . if I acted in any way like I didn’t want my son to have access [to his father],” McLeod said.

Another mother, Jacqueline Franchetti, testified in family court in New York about her ex-
boyfriend’s verbally abusive behavior, including stalking, harassment and angry outbursts.

But the forensic evaluator in her case recommended joint custody of her toddler daughter, Kyra. The report from child protective services concluded there was no domestic violence and stated the case was “low risk,” Franchetti recalled.

Even after Franchetti noticed signs of distress and personality changes in her daughter after visits with her father, the child’s attorney dismissed her concerns, she said. Days later, in July 2016, Kyra’s father shot the toddler twice in the back in a home in Virginia, then set the house on fire and killed himself, police said.

Saturday marked three years since Kyra’s death.

“I should be with her,” Franchetti said. “I should be able to hug her when I go to bed at night and not be visiting her grave.”