De­spite sig­nif­i­cant sup­port, bill on parental rights af­ter rape may stall

The Enquire-Gazette - - Front Page -

AN­NAPO­LIS – Del. Kath­leen M. Du­mais (D-Mont­gomery) has stood be­fore the Mary­land House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee seven times in the last nine years to present her bill ter­mi­nat­ing rapists’ parental rights of chil­dren con­ceived of rape.

The lat­est it­er­a­tion of the bill, which ap­peared in com­mit­tee last week ac­com­pa­nied by 18 letters of sup­port and three in op­po­si­tion, now sits on the desk of Com­mit­tee Chair­man Del. Joseph F. Val­lario Jr. (D-Prince Ge­orge’s).

De­spite the bill’s siz­able sup­port and laun­dry list of 78 co-spon­sors, which con­sti­tute a bi­par­ti­san ma­jor­ity of mem­bers of the House as well as of the com­mit­tee it­self, Du­mais said her big­gest con­cern is en­sur­ing Val­lario does not block the bill for a sev­enth time.

“If you don’t ex­actly love the way the bill’s writ­ten, let’s for God’s sake talk about it this year and let’s have it voted on,” Du­mais, House Ju­di­ciary vice-chair and a fam­ily law at­tor­ney, told the com­mit­tee last week.

Un­der cur­rent Mary­land law, the in­di­vid­ual parental rights of a per­son con­victed of rape can­not be ter­mi­nated for that rea­son. Du­mais’ bill, called The Rape Sur­vivor Fam­ily Pro­tec­tion Act, would al­low a court to ter­mi­nate parental rights af­ter find­ing “clear and con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence” that the child was born of rape.

“Courts don’t un­der­stand how dif­fi­cult it is for a rape vic­tim to co-par­ent with their at­tacker,” said Shauna Prewitt, a Chicago lawyer who said she fought her rapist in court for two years to gain sole cus­tody of her child.

Val­lario, a de­fense lawyer, was un­clear on Thurs­day whether he planned to bring the bill up for a com­mit­tee vote this year.

The Mary­land State Bar As­so­ci­a­tion, which sub­mit­ted an eight-page let­ter of op­po­si­tion, ex­pressed con­cern that the pro­ce­dure sug­gested by the bill would not af­ford ba­sic due process pro­tec­tions to those charged with rape.

A rape con­vic­tion would pro­vide the best safe­guards, but the bar as­so­ci­a­tion would be open to us­ing the “clear and con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence” stan­dard to de­ter­mine rape given suf­fi­cient pro­tec­tions, said Richard A. Mont­gomery III, di­rec­tor of leg­isla­tive re­la­tions.

“In a civil law set­ting, there might not be an is­sue, but this is a bill deal­ing with rape, a crim­i­nal law,” said Mont­gomery.

Mont­gomery did not give specifics as to what pro­tec­tions the “clear and con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence” stan­dard would need to gain the bar as­so­ci­a­tion’s sup­port.

Five per­cent of women who are raped be­come preg­nant, and many of those women choose to abort the child when they find out Mary­land law gives their at­tacker equal cus­to­dial rights, said Lisae Jor­dan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Mary­land Coali­tion Against Sex­ual As­sault.

While women have full re­pro­duc­tive rights to choose whether to get an abor­tion, a fa­ther’s parental rights be­gin af­ter the baby is born. This would mean a rapist can choose to fight for cus­to­dial rights and is in­cluded in de­cid­ing whether to put the baby up for adop­tion, Jor­dan said.

“It’s a heart­break­ing dis­cus­sion to have with survi- vors,” she said.

In sit­u­a­tions where the vic­tim knew the rapist, which hap­pens in most cases, there is the fear that the at­tacker will raise the “par­ent-alien­ation de­fense,” Prewitt said. This is where the de­fen­dant claims the vic­tim is bring­ing false rape charges to alien­ate the other par­ent, she said.

“There’s a lot of rape stigma that women of­ten falsely cry rape,” Prewitt said.

Ac­cord­ing to a Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures re­port, 22 states al­low courts to ter­mi­nate a con­victed rapist’s parental rights.

Wait­ing for a rape con­vic­tion “would de­lay things to the point where the child is no longer an in­fant, and in­fants are prefer­able for adop­tion. And frankly, it’s tor­ture for the rape vic­tim who wants to keep their child,” Jor­dan said.

Only 3.3 per­cent of all rapes na­tion­wide re­sult in a con­vic­tion, she said.

Tes­ti­mony sub­mit­ted in sup­port of the bill in­cluded letters from both anti-abor­tion and pro-abor­tion rights or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“What other bill has Mary­land Right to Life, Mary­land Catholic Con­fer­ence, and Planned Par­ent­hood sit­ting at the same ta­ble?” Du­mais said.

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