Most people are unaware of the crisis in the custody courts which have proven unable to safely handle most cases involving domestic violence and child abuse.
These are the most dangerous cases and a new study from the National Institute of Justice confirms that the courts are erring on the side of risking children in a majority of the cases studied. Another study by Dr. Dianne Bartlow looked at the court response to 175 child murders, many of which were facilitated by courts giving access to dangerous abusers. She asked the best judges in communities where the fathers killed their children what reforms had been implemented in response to the preventable tragedy. Shockingly, the answer was none because the court officials all believed the murder in their community was an exception.
One of the most notorious and upsetting murders occurred after a Maryland court gave Joaquin Rams the access he needed to kill Prince McLeod Rams. The father was initially limited to supervised visitations based on a long history of domestic violence and other crimes. He was the prime suspect in the murder of his mother and ex-girlfriend. It appears he killed them to collect life insurance and had been living on the proceeds from his mother’s life insurance for some time. Mr. Rams was just convicted of murdering Prince and it appears one of the motives was to collect $500,000 from three life insurance policies he took out.
The case illustrates much of what is wrong with the court response to abuse cases. The judge stated on the record that he did not like to preside over these types of cases. The widespread gender bias in custody courts meant there was immediately pressure to give the father unsupervised visitation despite the danger he posed. The father was permitted to hire a psychologist who is part of the cottage industry that makes its money by helping abusive fathers. She ignored any information that demonstrated the enormous danger the father posed and the judge blindly listened to the unqualified and biased psychologist.
Maryland, like most states has not responded to the preventable child murders by implementing reforms that would make children safer. There is now substantial scientific research from the most credible sources that confirms the present practices place children in jeopardy, but also offer solutions that could save children like Prince. The Safe Child Act incorporates the necessary reforms to make family courts safe for the children whose futures the courts will decide. We cannot just express sorrow over the death of Prince and go back to business as usual. He had his whole life in front of him and it was taken away out of a misplaced confidence in practices that routinely fail children. The death of Prince McLeod Rams cannot be allowed to be in vain.
A new study from the National Institute of Justice demonstrates that gender bias against mothers continues to be widespread. One of the worst examples is that when safe, protective mothers are limited to supervised visits in retaliation for trying to protect their children from an abuser they have experienced as dangerous, the courts are comfortable keeping the supervision for many months or years despite the lack of any safety risk. But when a father is supervised because he poses a serious danger, the courts immediately feel an urgency to make sure the child has a normal relationship with the father.
In 2012 Barry Goldstein wrote an article with Rita Smith who was then the Executive Director of the NCADV using the cases of Natalie Khawam and Joaquin Rams to illustrate this problem. With Joaquin Rams just convicted of murdering his child and new research confirming the harm of these practices, we believe it is important to repost this important article. Courts cannot safeguard children if they cannot distinguish between safe and dangerous parents.
Custody Court Crisis: Court Gave Joaquin Rams Access to Kill Fifteen-Month-Old Prince McLeod Rams
Two recent child custody cases involving the tragic death of Prince McLeod Rams and continued denial of normal visitation between Natalie Khawam and her son provide good examples of how the failure to use current scientific research and a widespread bias favoring (often abusive) fathers routinely place children at risk. The adoption of best practices that make the safety of children the first priority would have changed the outcomes of both cases by making the children safer and healthier.
We especially appreciate the Washington Post editorial concerning the death of Prince McLeod Rams because it provided information about the pattern of mistakes that often lead to tragedy. Domestic violence experts look to patterns within and among cases to better understand the circumstances, but court professionals rarely have the training to understand these patterns. One of the patterns we see is that when courts limit abusive fathers to supervised visitation there is tremendous pressure to quickly resume normal visitation, but when mothers are restricted for issues like “alienation” which do not create a safety risk, the courts routinely allow these restrictions to continue for many months or years.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently released a major study about the training of court professionals regarding domestic violence cases written by Dr. Daniel Saunders. Among the findings were that courts are too reluctant to require supervised visits for alleged abusers.
Domestic violence involve tactics used to maintain power and control over the victim and are based on a belief system. It is not based on a lack of control so a father’s ability to behave under supervision is not an indication that he has changed his beliefs. This was the major justification for the decision to permit the father to have unsupervised visitation and is a common error of inadequately trained court professionals. The Saunders’ study recommends that evaluators and other court professionals have training in specific topics like risk assessment and post-separation violence. This is the kind of information that might have saved this child’s life.
Dr. Saunders’ interviewed 24 protective mothers with harmful outcomes like the one in the Khawam case. These are cases with extreme outcomes in which safe, protective mothers who have provided good care for their children, and are the primary attachment figures for their children, are limited to supervised or no visitation and the alleged abuser is given custody. These outcomes are always harmful to children because the danger of denying a child a normal relationship with the primary attachment figure, which includes significant risk of depression, low self-esteem and suicide when older is always more harmful than whatever benefit the court believes it is providing.
The Saunders’ study found that court professionals with inadequate training in domestic violence are more likely to believe the myth that mothers frequently make false allegations, accept alienation theories unsupported by scientific research and assume mothers’ attempts to protect their children are actually harmful to the child. These assumptions lead to harmful outcomes for children.
All of these common errors appear to have been present in the Khawam case. The court assumed the mother was lying although there was never a full hearing on her domestic violence allegations. Ms. Khawam was pathologized as Saunders’ found was common in cases with these extreme outcomes. Significantly, Natalie Khawam is a successful attorney and did well in other parts of her life. These circumstances would cause unbiased psychologists to rule out the diagnosis used against Ms. Khawam and the mothers interviewed by Dr. Saunders.
If the judge was correct and Ms. Khawam had made false allegations of domestic violence it would not justify denying the child normal access to his primary attachment figure. If the father was not abusive he would not seek to further harm his son by interfering with the boy’s access to his mother. If the custody court system were working to protect the safety of children they would be more concerned with restoring unsupervised visitation with a safe mother than a dangerous father.
Every year, 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with a dangerous abuser. In a recent two year period, abusive fathers involved in contested custody cases murdered 175 children often with the unwitting assistance of the courts. Prince McLeod Rams is not a statistic, but a little boy who never had a chance to reach his potential. When will the court system learn from these tragedies and use the research and expertise now available to reform its practices and protect the children?
Former Executive Director of the NCADV
Rita Smith was the long-time Executive Director of the NCADV and one of the leaders of the domestic violence movement. She serves the NFL as one of the experts they work with when responding to domestic violence issues.