Mother of teen killed in Salt Lake City murder-suicide pushed for Utah law to protect children

The measure, called Kayden’s Law, would strengthen state protections for children at the center of child custody cases.

(via GoFundMe) Police say Om Moses Gandhi, 16, was killed by his father in a murder-suicide on May 13, 2023. Months earlier, his mother, who filed for divorce against the father in 2009, had met with a Utah lawmaker to push for more stringent state protections for children at the center of child custody cases.

Just months before police say Leah Moses’ ex-husband killed her teenage son, Moses met with a Utah lawmaker to push for more stringent state protections for children at the center of child custody cases.

She and a group of others joined Sen. Todd Weiler to discuss sponsoring a Utah version of “Kayden’s Law,” which gives states that strengthen their child custody laws access to federal support intended for judges and other court officials to undergo domestic violence training.

Weiler was interested in the measure, but by the time the bill was drafted, it was late enough in the session that he didn’t believe it would pass, he told The Salt Lake Tribune. So Weiler decided to table the proposed legislation until 2024.

About two months after the session ended, Om Moses Gandhi was killed by his father in a murder-suicide on May 13, Salt Lake City police said — three weeks after a custody evaluator recommended that Moses receive full custody of the 16-year-old boy.

“My son Om’s death was preventable,” Moses said in a news release. “The family court system professionals ignored my pleas for help to keep my son safe.”

The concern about how well Utah judges and court officials are trained in the dynamics of family violence comes as two Utah jurists have drawn national attention for their handling of custody disputes — with each accepting claims in separate cases that children were victims of “parental alienation.”

That disputed psychological theory holds that children who are angry or afraid of one parent, while having a strong bond with the other, suffer from “parental alienation syndrome.” The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges considers the theory “discredited,” and urges judges not to accept evidence of it.

Kayden’s Law, among other provisions, calls for states to limit the use of scientifically unproven therapies and reunification camps designed to address “alienation.”

Lauren Andersen, director of the Utah Judicial Institute, could not confirm whether Utah currently mandates domestic violence training for judges and court personnel. She also could not specify whether trainings offered by the courts include education about family violence or lethality assessments, now widely used by police.

The custody battle

Moses filed for divorce from her ex-husband, licensed psychologist Parth Gandhi, in 2009. Their divorce was finalized in 2014, but court records show an ongoing custody battle between the couple — with Moses obtaining two protective orders against Gandhi in 2009 and 2011, according to police documents.

Gandhi worked as the clinic director for Salt City Psychedelic Therapy and Research, located in the same block where police said he and Om’s bodies were found inside an office building the day before Mother’s Day.

(SLCPD) Salt Lake City police investigate after two people were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide at an office complex on Saturday, May 13, 2023. Police said Parth Gandhi killed his 16-year-old son before killing himself.

Between 2009 and as recently as March 2023, Salt Lake City police had documented 26 reports referencing Gandhi. The majority involved disputes between Gandhi and Moses over the custody of their two children, with reports filed by each of them — including some where officers wrote Moses was afraid of Gandhi and that Gandhi had made unspecified threats against her and Moses’ mother.

Two people also accused Gandhi of sexual misconduct, one alleging a sexual assault and the other alleging sexual harassment, both described as occurring in 2022. Both people also accused Gandhi of offering or injecting them with psychedelic substances, which Gandhi had access to as a neuropsychologist. The assault investigation was closed after Gandhi’s death. The person who alleged harassment feared retaliation and did not want to move forward with the case, the records state, and that investigation was closed.

Moses told The Tribune on Wednesday that considering a divorce was the “hardest thing she ever did,” because she was concerned about what kind of custody her ex-husband would maintain. She said her son was exposed to “violence” when the couple was together, and she was “so worried” about the kids being alone with him.

She recalled a Christmas list Om wrote in second grade that she found recently, when going through a jar of keepsakes she’d kept from his childhood.

“One [item on the list] was ‘a quintillion dollars’ for me, so that we could get a house,” Moses said. “And one was like a Nerf shooter thing. And then the third thing was the custody papers saying that he and his sister could be with me. So he was thinking about this from a really young age.”

Gandhi was granted full custody of Om under a temporary order filed in February 2022, while Moses was granted full custody of their daughter, the couple’s only other child.

Records related to that custody decision are sealed, and Moses declined to talk with The Tribune further about the court’s reasoning.

According to a news release from Betrayal Trauma Recovery, an organization that offers support to women who have suffered emotional abuse, Moses said she had asked a court commissioner to keep the children “safely with her,” citing allegations of domestic abuse and substance abuse and other “problematic behavior.”

About three weeks before Om was killed, a custody evaluator in April recommended that Moses receive full custody of her son, according to the organization’s news release.

At the time, Moses was “relieved and hopeful” that the court would act quickly, and that her son would be safe, according to the news release. Instead, “three and half weeks later, he was murdered,” Moses said in the same release.

Speaking with The Tribune, Moses said she was critical of court-ordered custody evaluators and others who were connected to the case.

“Many, many professionals — who we were ordered to pay a lot of money to — pretty quickly washed their hands of our situation, or would become patronizing, or even turn and refuse to be involved,” Moses told The Tribune, which she believed was “because of the intensity of what they started to find out.”

Kayden’s Law

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, during a legislative hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Leah Moses and others last year had asked Weiler to sponsor a version of “Kayden’s Law,” which gives states that strengthen their child custody laws access to federal support intended for judges and other court officials to undergo domestic violence training.

Moses pushed for Utah lawmakers to adopt the “Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act,” also known as Kayden’s Law, as recently as Feb. 17, when she rallied in support of the measure at the state Capitol.

The measure unlocks federal funds for states that add protections for at-risk children involved in child custody cases, including:

  • Restricting expert testimony to professionals who have expertise in abuse.

  • Limiting the use of reunification camps and other scientifically unproven therapies.

  • Providing evidence-based training on family violence to judges and court officials

  • Considering past evidence of sexual or physical abuse — including protection orders, arrests and convictions — by the accused parent.

Andersen, director of the Utah Judicial Institute, pointed to a section of the Utah Code of Judicial Administration, which establishes education standards for judges and other court officials. But that code does not specify whether family and domestic abuse training is offered or required.

In the May news release, Moses said she felt if court professionals had been better educated about abuse and “acted in his best interest,” her son would likely still be alive.

Weiler said he supports more training, but recognizes it has limits.

“The nice thing about Kayden’s Law is it does provide some federal funding for more training for domestic violence, more training for judges and things,” Weiler said. “I think more training is always good, but there’s no amount of training that will allow a judge to either predict the future or to know what they don’t know.”

If Utah lawmakers pass a state version of Kayden’s Law, said University of Utah professor Dr. Sonia Salari, family court officials will be better trained to understand warning signs during divorce and child custody hearings — such as allegations of violence from an ex-partner.

Salari, in the U.’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies, is an expert in family violence. She published a book in 2021 about how to recognize the vulnerabilities of family violence victims as well as the patterns of perpetrators.

“There are domestic violence victims who see their children abused and file for divorce, thinking that the state will help them keep the children safe,” Salari said. “But sometimes, in actuality, what that leads to is not that the state will care for the children, but in fact that now the children [are] required to be with the perpetrator without the former partner there to protect the kids.”

Salari has met Moses through her work at the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. Though she declined to comment on Moses’ case, Salari said her research indicates that individuals with high-powered careers — such as physicians or members of law enforcement — can often out-match their ex-spouse during a custody battle, with connections that help them hire top attorneys and resources to fight in court.

Remembering Om

(Cherise Udell) A candle burns at a vigil for Om Moses Gandhi on May 21, 2023. Police say the 16-year-old was killed by his father in a murder-suicide on May 13, 2023.

About a week after he was killed, Om was remembered at a vigil last month as an inclusive, loving and generous friend.

The vigil was organized by Cherise Udell and her daughter Ella, who used to live five doors down from Moses and her two children. As Udell and Moses formed a friendship over the years, so did Ella and Om.

“We would stay at their house a lot for sleepovers, and when our parents were out of town we would swap houses,” Ella, now 16, said last month.

Om would have turned 17 on May 27. Udell learned about his death on May 13 from a neighbor, who had seen police arrive at Gandhi’s nearby home.

“It didn’t really feel real — I mean, it’s absolutely horrific, and shocking,” Ella said. “There’s a part of you that that never believes something like this would ever actually happen, but rationally thinking, it was definitely a possibility.”

Ella said “there was a lot of hugging and a lot of tears” at the vigil. But in the midst of grieving for Om, Udell said there’s also a huge amount of frustration at the legal system.

“We have a lot of anger right now — at all the judges, custody evaluators, lawyers, et cetera — that failed Om, failed the grandparents, failed his sister,” she said.

Udell organized a GoFundMe campaign on Moses’ behalf to raise money to help pass Kayden’s Law and expand local domestic violence resources. The campaign had raised more than $100,000 as of last week.

Moses said she was overwhelmed by the support, especially since many who have donated are people she doesn’t know, or people she hasn’t seen in years. She described Om as a “loving little boy” who was also “quietly courageous.”

The last time she saw him was in March, when she dropped Om off early to ride the train to school one morning — since he wasn’t allowed a license yet, due to custody arrangements with his father, Moses said.

“He would always say before he shut the door, every single time before he shut any door,” Moses said. “...No matter where we were, before he would shut the door, he would always say, ‘I love you mom.’ And he really meant it. That was him.”