Pregnancies resulting from rape are back in the news after one Pennsylvania rapist demanded child custody. Surprisingly, states are split over giving a father custody of a child conceived as a result of his rape. In Pennsylvania, it took authorities two years to convict a man of rape, but twice as long to terminate his parental rights.
Streets of Philadelphia
M.E.’s four-year legal battle, which ended only after a state appeals court ruled in her favor, inspired unanimous approval in the state Legislature to close an “archaic” loophole in Pennsylvania’s Adoption Act.
Prior to his parental rights being terminated, M.E.’s rapist had shared child custody and continued contact with the children, even in prison, forcing her to remain legally tied to him.
M.E. was a year old when her mother married the man who later adopted her. The sexual assaults began when she was 4. Until she became pregnant, M.E. thought he was her biological father.
The couple divorced when M.E. was 11. Her stepfather got custody of M.E. and her two step-siblings. Her mother moved to another state.
The abuse look place for nearly 20 years and spanned two states, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Her stepfather kept journals chronicling the sexual abuse, including photos and videos that later were used to prosecute him.
Rape-related pregnancies — like the crime itself — are an underreported outcome of sexual violence, women’s rights and criminal justice experts said.
Florida Rapist Child Custody
I’ve written about the phenomenon of a rapist trying to get custody before, and it is actually a national problem.
Statistics, like the number children conceived as a result of sexual battery, are sobering. Each year, there are approximately 32,000 pregnancies resulting from rape, according to a 1996 study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Congress got involved. The Rape Survivor Child Custody Act (the “RSCCA”) was made into law as part of the bipartisan Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act.
The RSCCA authorizes the U.S. Attorney General to make grants to states that pass legislation terminating the parental rights of men who father children through rape.
Many states adopted laws terminating parental rights in rape cases after Congress passed the RSCCA, granting additional funding to help sexual assault victims in states that allow courts to end parental rights when there is “clear and convincing evidence” that a child was conceived by rape.
However, some states require a rape conviction to terminate parental rights. But activists argue that the conviction standard is too high. The statistics they cite to are highly contested, but they argue three out of four rapes go unreported and less than 1% of all rapes lead to criminal convictions with incarceration.
Florida has been a part of this national trend. The child’s best interest is the guiding principle in establishing a parenting plan and for ordering a timesharing schedule in Florida.
Under Florida law, if a court determines by clear and convincing evidence that a child was conceived as a result of an act of sexual battery, the court must presume that termination of the father’s parental rights is in the best interest of the child if the child was conceived as a result of the unlawful sexual battery.
The action to terminate the parental rights of the rapist under the Florida Statute may be filed at any time and generally doesn’t require proof of a proof of a guilty plea or conviction in a criminal proceeding.
You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania
M.E. learned she was pregnant the first time at 17. Initially her stepfather told her siblings and mom that the father was someone from her school. This kept everyone from asking questions potentially exposing the abuse.
The birth of her daughter tightened the ties to her abuser, M.E. said. She became pregnant by rape a second time in Michigan, but lost the child. She was 22 when she gave birth to a son.
By that time, her stepfather was stalking her, she said. He put monitoring devices on the computer. She was under constant surveillance and kept isolated in the house. The threats were constant. If anyone found out the family secret he would kill her, the kids and himself, M.E. said.
Then, her daughter turned 4. M.E. knew she could be silent no longer. M.E. went to police in Michigan, who opened an investigation and uncovered the decades of videos, photos and journal entries detailing M.E.’s sexual abuse and corroborating her allegations. The evidence led authorities to Pennsylvania, where a second criminal investigation was opened.
Despite the charges, at any point during the two years the criminal case lasted, the family courts in either state could have forced M.E. to arrange for her children to maintain contact with their father, including bringing them to visit him in jail.
Since 2016, Michigan has allowed rape victims to petition family court, which has a lower burden of proof, to sever parental rights in rape cases.
Yet, in Pennsylvania, M.E. learned that the courts would not consider a petition to terminate parental rights unless she had a “replacement” partner willing to adopt her children.
Since the 2015 passage of the federal Rape Survivor Child Custody Act – which provides a financial incentive to states to pass laws to terminate parental rights of a rapist with clear and convincing evidence – more states are adopting laws allowing for rape-related termination of parental rights.
Currently, 32 states and the District of Columbia allow it when a child is conceived as a result of rape; other states have custody or visitation restrictions.
Pennsylvania is among more than half the states where the courts use the “clear and convincing evidence” legal standard to determine a child was conceived as a result of a rape and to terminate a perpetrator’s parental rights.
But state courts long have interpreted the parental rights termination law as requiring the restoration of a two-parent household in order for the courts to sever parental rights for a biological parent.
Despite changing family compositions, family law remains steadfast in the idea that two-parent households, or shared custody arrangements, are what is always in the best interest of the child.
The Bucks County Courier Times is here.