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Dai Xiaolei is pictured with her son in 2013.

On Jan. 31, 2014, under a cloud of anger, Dai Xiaolei left her 17-month-old son with her in-laws in a small town southwest of Beijing.

She has not seen him since.

Instead, she has been thrust into a marital and legal battle with an abusive spouse, one that has made her a public face of problems mothers encounter in China, where families regularly solve child custody cases by abduction and courts often treat possession as nine-tenths of the law, even when husbands have been violent.

For Ms. Dai, the fight in early 2014 was over toothpaste, the latest in an ongoing battle with her husband's family over how to raise Tristan, her son. The family demanded she follow local tradition, that no one should clean the teeth of a young boy. A Chinese-born Canadian with western standards of hygiene, Ms. Dai had brushed his teeth in secret.

When her husband found out, the family was furious.

They surrounded Ms. Dai as she held her son. "You don't deserve to be a mother," she recalls them saying, her husband, his sister and his parents all denouncing her. "You have no rights to do anything. We forbid you to brush his teeth."

The next day she returned to her home in Beijing. "I was angry, so I left," she said.

Over the next few months her marriage foundered. She suspected her husband was unfaithful and, she says, he sometimes hit her during fights – once with a broomstick, another time with a pillow he used to smother her.

When Ms. Dai returned to her in-laws for Tristan's birthday in August, the family did not let her in the door.

"You cannot see your child," they said.

In China, grandparents commonly raise children. Ms. Dai took care of Tristan for nine months after he was born in Toronto, but he has largely lived with his grandparents following her return to China, where she built a career as a film-industry art director.

Still, she had previously travelled to see him on weekends, and she expected to continue seeing him.

But whenever she has gone back, she has been blocked from seeing her son, who now calls his aunt "mom." Ms. Dai has missed his second, third and fourth birthdays, the last just this week. Meanwhile, a Chinese court gave full custody of her son to her husband until Tristan turns 10, despite acknowledging he was abusive.

Ms. Dai is now midway through an appeal, her final avenue for securing access to her son.

She has borne the costs alone. Like Alison Azer, the Courtenay, B.C. woman whose children were allegedly abducted to Iran, Ms. Dai has struggled to get help from home. She has written Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and multiple people at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. One told her to call local police if her child was in danger and declined her request for a letter of support she could use in court: "this would involve the Government of Canada in a private legal matter, which is not part of our mandate as consular officials."

Ms. Dai said she sees that as "a message to other Canadian mothers" in China that "if they get in any sort of trouble, be aware that no one can help."

In an e-mail, Foreign Affairs spokesman François Lasalle said officials are providing Ms. Dai "consular assistance," and "work hard" to support more than 300 Canadian families worldwide in similar circumstances. A new Chinese domestic violence law, enacted this year, "is a significant improvement" but "still has important shortcomings," he said.

"We are committed to ensuring the promotion and protection of women's and girls' human rights," he said.

Ms. Dai, however, has found greater support from others in China after she took her fight public, galvanizing other mothers to confront weaknesses in their legal system and advocate for change in a country where fast-rising divorce rates are approaching U.S. levels. Ms. Dai has made advocacy a full-time job, securing a small office in Beijing and hiring three assistants.

Her story has been published by more than 200 media outlets and she has been interviewed on national television shows. She has hired the lawyer who represented Kim Lee, an American woman beaten by her famous Chinese husband, a hotly discussed case that drew national attention to domestic abuse problems in China.

The pain Ms. Dai suffered "is more severe" than what Ms. Lee endured, her lawyer, Qi Lianfeng, said in an interview.

Ms. Dai says her former husband, movie stuntman Liu Jie, slapped her, pushed her to the ground, stomped on her face and once wrenched her leg so badly she had trouble walking.

In a trial last year, however, Mr. Liu argued that Tristan should stay with him because Ms. Dai "is irresponsible, doesn't care about the son or want to raise him" and was too busy working, according to a summary contained in the verdict released this spring. The judge found that Mr. Liu had hit Ms. Dai, but gave him custody nonetheless, citing "the principle of benefiting his healthy physical and mental growth."

Reached for comment, Mr. Liu said "it's a family matter," and asked for privacy.

The stakes in China are high for fathers and their families. The long-standing one-child policy means a child, especially a son, is expected to "carry on the family blood," said Li Ying, a lawyer and director of a Beijing legal assistance agency.

When those families seize their children, they also gain an advantage in court, where judges tend to view leaving the child in place as less disruptive, heavily emphasizing possession.

Courts also have little power to enforce custody rulings. And authorities try to keep problems quiet. Ms. Dai was visited by police before holding a recent conference on custody issues, and subsequently asked a Globe and Mail reporter not to attend to avoid further problems.

Still, custody problems are not unique to China, which is moving to ensure a new domestic violence law, enacted this year, creates real change. Officials are currently drafting detailed guidelines for its enforcement.

"In the future, things will be better, particularly in custody matters," said Yang Xiaolin, a lawyer who was part of a special team at Nanjing Normal University examining problems with child custody.

But, he said, attitudes must first change.

"The Chinese legal system has yet to treat juveniles seriously," he said. To decide custody, "a child's needs must be taken into account. Not only their material needs, but also emotional ones."

With reporting by Yu Mei