Five years ago, Montgomery County, MD judge Michael Algeo sentenced my son Prince to death by granting his father Joaquin Rams unsupervised visitation. On the fourth visit, Rams murdered Prince. This past summer, Virginia courts proved that Rams plotted Prince’s murder during our entire custody case, in hopes to obtain over $500,000 in life insurance. I fought for 15-months to keep visits supervised, and have often wondered if my son would still be here had supervised visits been a sustainable, long term option.
On December 8th, Family Services, Inc. (FSI) announced in a press release the opening of Montgomery County’s Safe Passage Center for Supervised Visitation and Monitored Exchange. The new center is located a little over a mile from the courthouse where our custody trial was held. In contrast to the six-hundred-dollar monthly charge that both my son’s murderer and I shared for the cost of our private supervisor, the new center is free of charge for Montgomery County residents. While centers like this one are popping up all over the country, they are not yet the standard in every county across the nation.
“There are parts of states were centers are engrained in the communities, and with them a commitment to keep children safe, but then you go a few counties over and they have nothing,” says Joe Nullet, Executive Director of The Supervised Visitation Network. This is an encouraging first step toward keeping children safe; however, the potential for the center is diminished if judges continue to ignore signs that a parent poses imminent danger to the child, the purpose of the center won’t be fulfilled.
Approximately four years ago, CourtWatch Montgomery published a report titled “Circuit Court Protective Order Practices in Domestic Violence Cases” that cited my son’s death as one example where a judge ordered unsupervised visits to a confirmed abuser without adequate scrutiny of parenting patterns. Even after finding that the parent, by “clear and convincing” evidence, had committed domestic violence, judges routinely ordered unsupervised visits to the father in over 70% of cases.
While the study pointed to the lack of community services as a problem that could leave judges without sustainable options other than to lift supervision, it also touched on how many judges showed unjust skepticism when a woman claimed her children had been abused.
Time Magazine recognized “The Silence Breakers”, the women who came forward to speak out against powerful men who had assaulted them, as the 2017 person of the year. But 2017 wasn’t the first time women have been brave enough to speak out about abuse. Many of us have walked into courtrooms across the nation every day, and pleaded with judges to keep our children safe from our abusers. Unlike powerful Hollywood women, who are often found instantly credible and important, most other mothers who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in court often aren’t afforded that same priority by the bench.
Four months after my son died, in February 2014, I watched a case in Montgomery County that sounded hauntingly similar to my own. A woman was alleging that her ex had abused her and her child, and was requesting that the visits between the child and its father remain supervised. The parents were paying a private supervisor, and it was time for the judge to find a more sustainable, long term option for this family.
“There have been a lot of terrible cases in this county lately,” Judge Johnson said, looking straight at me. “But we can’t all run every time someone yells fire.”
The rage I felt when I heard this comment remains today because it’s a direct, baseless attack on the mother’s credibility. If Judge Johnson heard someone scream that there was a shooter while he was in a crowded theater, I have no doubt that he would run out of the theater immediately. It is unlikely that he would wait or assume that someone was just playing a prank.
Why then, would he take a chance with a child’s life that he would be unlikely to take with his own? The only answer can be that he doesn’t really think there’s a fire, despite reports. A 2017 University of Michigan study reported that fathers who were accused of abuse, and in turn accused the mother of alienation, won their cases 72% of the time. Child sexual abuse allegations increased a father’s likelihood of winning to 81%.
Some could argue that a parent shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to visit their child without the presence of a supervisor. It is possible that only being able to visit your child at a supervised center could have a negative impact on bonding. While several experts have called for research to determine the long term effects of supervision, there aren’t any empirical studies that show a downside to supervision other than how the supervised parent feels.
While it is tempting to view this situation solely from the perspective of the parent, the safety of a child always outranks the comfort of his or her parent. If Rams had been forced to visit Prince at a supervised visitation center, he would have hated it – but Prince would still be alive.
Creating an affordable, sustainable supervised visitation option is a very important step toward protecting children, but we are not finished here. In order to save children, the momentum of the women’s movement taking place in America right now needs to extend within the walls of Family Court. Judges need to check their biases at the door, and recognize that the assumption that a woman is lying could cost a child his or her life. When it comes to the safety of my child, I am going to run every time someone yells “fire” – I would expect you to run, too.