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Maralee McLean endured years of emotional and physical abuse from her then-husband, Lance. But what he did to her while they were married was nothing compared to agony she was forced to deal with after they separated. McLean’s husband sexually abused the couple’s 2-year-old daughter. And then he got custody of her.
“To be able to use the courts the way he did was the ultimate abuse,” McLean says. “He was very charming. He was brilliant, and he worked the system. The system is unequipped to handle child sexual abuse in family courts which causes re-victimization.”
Even though three police reports and three hospital reports confirmed the abuse, Lance was awarded full custody when the couple’s daughter was 4.
“The case was handled in family court, and they didn’t allow any evidence,” McLean says. “I took her to a doctor and got social services involved. The more evidence that came out, the more time she got with her father. I was in and out of court for 10 long years trying to protect her.”
During eight of those years, McLean was only permitted two-hour supervised visits with her daughter. “The visits were in a little 8-by-10 room,” she says. “I watched her beautiful dancing eyes go into a trancelike state. The ultimate form of domestic violence is watching your child suffer and seeing them get ripped from your arms to go back to their abuser. I can think of nothing worse.”
Unfortunately McLean isn’t alone.
“Nearly 58,000 children per year are forced to live with their abuser,” she says. “My case was 25 years ago but even now, in 2015, little has changed. I see cases coming down everyday with the same outcomes.”
McLean never gave up her fight though. Despite multiple gag orders and threatened jail time, she went to the media and even the governor of Colorado.
“When my daughter was 10 or 11, I went on CNN with my story,” McLean says. “I think the only reason I did not go to jail was that I had so much media coverage behind me.”
McLean has even testified in front of Congress on the issue of children being forced to live with their abusers. Most recently, she detailed her experiences in a book called Prosecuted But Not Silenced: Courtroom Reform for Sexually Abused Children. She hopes it will offer other mothers some guidance, and that it can be an educational tool for judges, lawyers, therapists, social workers and the general public.
“This can happen to anyone out there …This happens to good mothers,” she says. “I thought I was all alone when I was going through it. Today we have the Internet and social media. Go to my Facebook page. There is a collage of women who have been gagged and jailed for trying to protect their children. When I speak at the International Battered Mothers Conference every year, I say to the women attending, ‘Look at the mother sitting next to you. There is no one who will better understand this nightmare than her. We need to support one another.’” See " When Your Support System Isn't Clear".
After 10 long years, McLean finally got her daughter back.
“My daughter had a lot taken away from her, including all the people who loved her and who tried to help protect her,” she says. “This took away her childhood and put her behind in the normal events of life to grow and achieve. However, she never gave up, and has persevered every day of her life to achieve such goals as graduating from a university. She is a true humanitarian. She is very strong, and someday I believe she will set the world on fire for the good causes in life.”
What she wishes she’d known: McLean emphasizes the fact that domestic violence can happen to anyone, and that everyone should be on the lookout for signs of possible abuse. “It’s really important to watch for domestic violence red flags,” she says. “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.”
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