Mom Goes Public With Her Harrowing Story To Prevent More Children From Being Victimized

To many, this mother's story is beyond belief.

Trigger warning: This article contains sensitive material relating to domestic abuse and child sexual abuse. If you or a loved one are in a crisis, you can view a number of resources for Protective Parents and find an expert who is ready to listen.

To many, Maralee McLean's story is beyond belief. 

It began when the Denver mom said she noticed her daughter's odd behavior after a visit with her father, McLean's ex-husband. At 2-and-a-half years old, McLean said her daughter began signaling with words and actions that she'd been inappropriately touched, but when McLean reported this to the courts, she found herself in a custody battle — a battle she'd eventually lose, making her ex-husband the sole caretaker of their daughter. 

While McLean's story may be beyond belief to many, it is all too familiar to the hundreds of women in the Protective Mothers Alliance, who are fighting — or have fought — for custody of their child so the child doesn't end up in the hands of their abuser. McLean told A Plus such cases are happening in epidemic numbers in the U.S. and internationally.  

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In an effort to change our very flawed judicial system and protect the rights of children and moms everywhere, McLean is telling her story.

McLean speaking for Moms Fight Back, "a community of powerful and passionate Colorado moms who are coming together, online and in their neighborhoods, to positively tackle the most pressing issues facing our kids today."

McLean's book, Prosecuted But Not Silenced: Courtroom Reform for Sexually Abused Childrendetails her horrifying 12-year ordeal, fighting to earn custody of her daughter in a case never intended to be about custody at all, but about alleged child sexual abuse. In the book, she argues that the inadequate training of judges, therapists, social workers, and court-appointed evaluators to handle abuse claims led them to ignore mounting evidence, and to fail her daughter in favor of protecting her alleged abuser. 

Despite physical evidence obtained by the Children's Hospital and corroborating reports by caretakers, family, friends, and others, the opposing legal team ensured McLean's ex-husband, who denied the allegations, earn not just unsupervised visits but full custody. 

McLean holding her book Prosecuted But Not Silenced: Courtroom Reform for Sexually Abused Children Courtesy of Maralee McLean

While common knowledge tells us mothers almost always fare better in family court, investigative reporter Kristen Lombardi says statistics indicate otherwise when it comes to cases such as McLean's. In her article "Custodians of Abuse," Lombardi cites three studies that show family courts consistently fail victims in custody disputes involving child abuse claims. After interviewing 25 experts in custody litigation involving child abuse claims, Lombardi found this failure is largely due to the fact that family courts do not treat such claims as criminal cases, so normal checks and balances do not apply: there is no jury present, legal representation is not mandated, and evidence, such as McLean's, is often not even presented in court.

"Family courts do not rely on criminal investigators to examine child abuse claims. They rely on family advocates called guardians ad litem (GALs), whose charge is to investigate allegations of abuse, abandonment, and neglect and to represent the best interests of the children in disputed custody cases. More often than not, they are licensed psychologists or social workers. Sometimes, they are attorneys. They may be highly trained in their own areas of expertise, but that doesn't qualify them to evaluate physical evidence of abuse and to interview victims and alleged abusers. Yet in contested custody battles, they are frequently called upon to do just that. Their recommendations carry significant weight in judicial decisions that set the course of a child's life." 

Author, workshop leader, and consultant on domestic abuse and child maltreatment Lundy Bancroft writes on his website that without the proper training to recognize domestic abuse, the typical judge, custody evaluator, or divorce mediator may not pick up on signs of abuse if the alleged perpetrator appears well-behaved in court and under supervision. Additionally, he says court employees tend to believe a father who wants custody of their child must have good intentions. 

"As a number of court employees have said to me over the years, 'There are so many fathers out there who abandon their children, and here I have a Dad who wants to be involved, you're telling me I should discourage him?' As a result, they tend to hold fathers to much lower standards than mothers," writes Lundy.

“Supervised visitation is not often imposed. If used, it usually gets lifted within a few months as long as the father behaves well under supervision, as most abusive men do.”

Photo Credit: ambrozinio I Shutterstock

Without the GALs on her side and no trained officials to recognize what was going on behind closed doors, McLean felt like a pariah in court. "The emotional abuse was debilitating, knowing your child is being sexually abused and forced to give her to the abuser," she tells A Plus. "The financial drain was insurmountable and never-ending." In addition to the challenge of finding a good attorney well-versed in domestic violence and child sexual abuse, McLean say she faced what so many others in her position endure in court — blatant sexism. 

Lombardi references a 2002 report by the National Organization of Women (NOW) which analyzed the state of the family courts in California. In the report, 300 California mothers were surveyed with a questionnaire and follow-up interviews.

"After significant research, CA NOW declares the present family court system in California to be crippled, incompetent, and corrupt," it says in the report. Lombardi adds, "Women reported being openly insulted and called 'sexist names' by judges, GALs, and court evaluators. Some complained that judges silenced them during hearings while allowing their estranged partners to speak. Others complained that judges refused to let them call their own expert witnesses who'd analyzed forensic evidence in their cases or even to let women testify in custody disputes that would affect their own children. Evaluators and GALs often sided with the fathers and their attorneys, especially when spousal or child abuse arose."

Photo Credit:  Photographee.eu I Shutterstock

In her book, McLean writes the courts labeled her as being vindictive, hysterical, and accused her of having Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). PAS, a proposed theory by Dr. Richard Gardner, is known as a relationship dysfunction when one parent turns the child against the other, but it is not recognized as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). It can be extremely harmful if misused in custody battles, especially when allegations of abuse are at play. In McLean's case, the reported abuse was dismissed as nothing more than a distraught mother with PAS coaching her child to get back at the father. As a result of this evaluation, her child was even placed in foster care at one point. 

"Many experts and organizations, including NOW, argue that PAS is a dangerous legal strategy, which harms abuse victims," says family law attorney Lina Guillen. "Many children who have suffered child abuse or witnessed domestic violence may naturally reject or refuse to see the abusive parent. If the abusive parent successfully claims PAS, the children may be forced to spend additional time with the abuser, which could pose a threat to their mental health, safety, and welfare. " 

McLean's allegations held little weight in court after being labeled with PAS. Her ex-husband was awarded full custody of their then-4-year-old daughter in accordance with the Best Interest of the Child statute, which places the child in custody of the parent best able to nurture the relationship with the other parent. McLean was relegated to one-hour supervised visits in an 8-foot-by-10-foot room. This lasted for eight years.

“For a system to allow the perpetrator, her father, continued access to the child he was abusing was exactly the opposite of what should be happening,” McLean writes in her book. “Was there no such thing as justice?”

After losing courtroom battle after courtroom battle, being delivered a punishing gag order, and made to pay all court costs, McLean decided to go public with her story. She contacted a domestic violence center in New Jersey called the National Center for Protective Parents and connected with the founder, Joan Pennington, Esq., to join the grassroots effort to end this nightmare so many parents face. Together, they held a rally at the capitol in Denver to bring awareness to the issue, using McLean's story as a case study. Protective Mothers came from every state, and news stations covered the event extensively. 

"Fighting body and soul, I did not see how the system was going to continue this horrific crime to our children," McLean tells A Plus. "When I began speaking out and had the rally, [and began] lobbying, [I earned] pervasive local news coverage, [then] CNN International newswomen were contacting me from all across the U.S."

When her daughter was around 10, McLean went to CNN with her story.

At around 12-and-a-half years old, McLean's daughter finally got to speak to the judge on her own behalf. Her testimony, as well as McLean's 12 years of persistent fighting in court, speaking out publicly at rallies and events, and earning the attention of the media, finally allowed the mother and daughter to be legally reunited. 

"It was surreal when I got her home. It was gradual, and I remember the first time [she ran] through the house, looking in every room reminiscing [...] During the time I spent navigating, trying to get her back to normal as much as possible. Never discussing the abuse, but giving her all the love of family and friends." But having her daughter home didn't erase the trauma of what had occurred. Dealing with this trauma is something McLean says her daughter may work through her whole life. 

To ensure nobody else has to go through what she and her daughter did, McLean has made it her life's mission to advocate for moms and their children. 

Photo Credit: DONOT6_STUDIO I Shutterstock

For the past 25 years, McLean has involved herself in various organizations providing resources for victims, has been a public speaker on these issues, and has fought for reform and to create legislation protecting mothers and children in family court. She is involved in the Women's Media Center — a nonprofit organization that gives women and girls a voice and representation in media — as a SheSource expert in the field of domestic violence, child abuse, and advocacy. She is a national American Program Bureau (APB) speaker, and works with Fightback Foundation, as well as Justice for Children and Darkness to Light, two organizations collaborating  to create a curriculum to better equip  judges, lawyers, police, and others to deal with court cases related to child sexual abuse and domestic violence. 

"Every day, I am inundated with the most excruciating pain of mothers calling [who have lost] their children to the abuser in our family courts," she tells us. "I have worked with legislation here in Colorado, and I was on the governor's task force for rewriting the laws for our children. Nationally, I testified before Congress, and continue to write articles and speak on this tragedy at conferences, law schools, [and I] reach out to media to bring about awareness." 

Bancroft says the key to building a broad-based movement for family justice is to have Protective Mothers themselves occupy the key positions of leadership within the movement. On his website, he adds that allies also have an important role to play. "For example, there are many men who are interested in being active in building this movement, especially the brothers, fathers, and new partners (new husbands and boyfriends) of protective mothers, who have witnessed up close what happens when a woman attempts to protect her children from a violent father post-separation." 

McLean speaking at a Take Back the Night event, a foundation that "seeks to end sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual abuse, and all other forms of sexual violence." Courtesy of Maraless McLean

McLean also calls upon the public to recognize how pervasive this issue is, and to help in the fight to ensure such cases go to criminal court with a jury and evidence presented, rather than to family court with child custody evaluators (CPS). She also recommends people learn to recognize signs of child sexual abuse and trauma, and signs of domestic abuse. "It's really important to watch for domestic violence red flags," she told DomesticShelters.org in 2016. "You really need to pay attention to that and listen to your instincts. The rest of your life will be caught up in it if you have children. The best thing for women is to obviously be careful who you marry and secondly is to document everything. Document, document, document."

While McLean says times have not changed much since she found herself in court, there are plenty of resources for Protective Parents. Her book includes a list of guidelines for what mothers should do in this situation. Namely, she says parents should just listen to their child, and just let them talk without asking questions. A parent may be accused of coaching their child if they guide the conversation. 

Through it all, McLean knows she has helped give so many people hope by simply sharing her story and fighting for the cause. 

"My daughter survived, and we have maintained our strong loving bond, [giving] these women hope," she says, adding that her case serves as an example for so many, helping them to not be blindsided by the system. "[...] Every time I hear a child's cry, I am alerted to the pain and suffering. Every day I am approached by another case, and if I can help the moms, I am also helping to save the children." 

But the most rewarding thing for McLean is seeing her daughter survive, and knowing they are going to make a difference together.

Cover image via itsmejust I Shutterstock

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