California mother of daughters who were killed by their father speaks out to change law

The mother of three girls who were killed by their father at an Arden Arcade church publicly spoke out on Monday, her first remarks since her children were shot Feb. 28.

Around 50 people attended a news conference Monday at the Capitol in support of a bill that would force family court judges to learn more about domestic violence, with the aim of applying that to contested custody cases.

David Mora shot Samia, Samantha, and Samarah Gutierrez, ages 13, 10 and 9, during a supervised visit. The visit was sanctioned by a judge despite the man’s history of violence, which was documented in court proceedings. Ileana Gutierrez, the girls’ mother, had been granted a final restraining order against her ex by a judge who believed her story that Mora had choked her and threatened to kill her, but she was still obligated to share custody.

Gutierrez, who wore a T-shirt printed with a photo of her daughters, spoke in Spanish after state Sen. Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, who authored the bill, and Ana Estevez, the mother of Aramazd Andressian Jr., known as Piqui, another young child who was killed in California by his father.

Gutierrez spoke through tears for several minutes, at times so emotional that she could not form words. In Spanish, she said her children died four months ago “por culpa de un sistema” — because of a system.

Rubio summarized Gutierrez’s comments in English: “She wanted to address a negligent system who failed her,” she said. “She feels that victims are not protected.”

Erika Gonzalez, the mother of Yesli Velazquez Gonzalez, a 23-year-old woman found shot to death in Los Angeles June 5 along with her 6-year-old son, Angel, also spoke in Spanish. Gonzalez told the Los Angeles Times that she believes her daughter’s boyfriend killed them. He has been named a person of interest by law enforcement.

A hearing for Rubio’s bill is scheduled for Tuesday, June 28. The senator named it “Piqui’s Law” after Estevez’s 5-year-old son, who was slain in 2017. The bill would require authorities involved in family court cases to take ongoing trainings about family violence, which Rubio said was a step in the right direction.

The deaths of Samia, Samantha and Samarah threw family court failures into the spotlight earlier this year, and their story is part of a broader pattern. The Center for Judicial Excellence has found that between 2008 and 2022, at least 851 children across the U.S. were murdered while their families were involved in family court cases. Of the 85 children slain in California, at least 25 died after authority figures ignored or overlooked abuse allegations.

Research shows that even when mothers allege domestic violence in custody cases, fathers are often favored. George Washington University law professor Joan Meier analyzed 10 years’ of published custody rulings in the U.S., looking at cases where mothers or fathers alleged abuse. She found that mothers who were the primary custodial parent lost custody 26% of the time after saying their ex was abusive. The court disbelieved most mothers’ claims of abuse, but women could lose custody of their children even when a judge did believe them. In 14% of cases in which the judge acknowledged intimate partner violence, mothers still lost custody. When judges believed fathers committed child physical abuse, mothers still lost custody of their endangered children 20% of the time.

Fathers get much more out of custody courts than mothers do,” Meier told the Texas Observer, “at the expense of children.” She’s found that fathers frequently claim in court that the mother is lying to alienate the children from him; sometimes, courts seemed to operate under the assumption that this is happening even when the father does not bring such claims.

Following that pattern, in 2017, a family court granted Piqui’s father partial custody, even though the boy said his father wanted to hurt his mother and Estevez repeatedly told authorities he was a danger to herself and her son. Prior to Piqui’s father securing whole weeks of custody, Estevez sought a restraining order against him that detailed the abuse. However, the judge deemed him fit to care for the boy. Ultimately, the father admitted that he smothered Piqui to death and left his small body in the woods to spite Estevez.

At the state Capitol, Estevez said, “He took the one thing that mattered most to me in this world — my only child.”

The grieving mother stood in front of the crowd and briefly told the stories of 13 children who were killed by a parent in California. When she got to her own son’s story, she halted, then began to cry.

She said she told the family court repeatedly that her ex was a dangerous man, and “the evidence was ignored.” She wishes she could confront the judge. “I wonder what that judge would say now if he had to explain how he concluded that a murderer has more credibility than a protective parent.”

She described her bereavement “a life sentence.”

There have been multiple pieces of legislation in response to Piqui’s murder. In 2018, Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, introduced Piqui’s resolution, a bill that, among other things, would have encouraged more records to be kept of domestic violence and custody hearings.

In 2020, Sen. Susan Rubio ushered in a new law that required family court judges to consider coercive control — a psychological form of abuse — when making child custody determinations. Estevez testified in favor of the bill. Speaking before lawmakers, she referenced the way physical violence can be taken more seriously than psychological or emotional abuse. “Had I walked into the courtroom with a black eye or a broken arm,” she told legislators, “perhaps the outcome would be different.”

Now, the senator is championing Piqui’s Law, which would require family court personnel, including judges, to receive ongoing training to better recognize and respond to domestic violence, child abuse and family trauma. In its current iteration, the bill says that the intent is for authorities to “make appropriate custody decisions that prioritize child safety and well-being.”

“These mothers standing here with me deserve better,” the senator said. “Stand with us.”