With new US law, more funding to protect women who have children after rape

The Rape Survivor Child Custody Act boosts funding for states that allow women to petition for the termination of parental rights based on clear and convincing evidence that a child was conceived through rape.

Danny Johnston/AP
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) of Florida applauds at a state Democratic Party event on April 23, 2015. Rep. Wasserman Schultz and Tom Marino (R) of Pennsylvania cosponsored the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act.

Each year, thousands of women who become pregnant by rape decide to keep and raise their babies. A new federal law gives incentives to states to better protect them from further trauma or harassment by rapists seeking parental rights.

President Obama signed the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act into law on May 29 as part of the bipartisan Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. It boosts funding for states that allow women to petition for the termination of parental rights based on clear and convincing evidence that a child was conceived through rape.

“Rape is often about power ... and there’s nothing more powerful than being able to torment a woman by using her child,” said Shauna Prewitt, a Chicago attorney, in a press call Wednesday.

Ms. Prewitt became an advocate for better state laws after enduring a two-year custody battle with the man who raped her a decade ago. “We’ve seen cases where raped women have been told by their attackers, ‘If you will drop the criminal case against me ... I will agree to not try to seek custody rights,’ ” she says. “It’s really fantastic that now we have a federal law in place that’s going to encourage more states to pass these types of laws.”

Studies estimate that 25,000 to 32,000 pregnancies in the United States each year are the result of rape, and one third or more of the women opt to raise the child.

Currently, about 36 states address the issue in law, but many of them require a criminal conviction of the rapist, which leaves little protection for the vast majority of victims, since very few rapes lead to prosecution. The “clear and convincing” standard – in place in 10 states – allows a judge to block the alleged rapist’s access to a child in a civil proceeding with a lower burden of proof than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required in criminal courts. (See a chart of state laws here: apps.rainn.org/policy-state-laws-db/landing-page-parental-rights/index.cfm.)

States that create or reform laws to include the clear and convincing standard will now be eligible for a 10 percent increase in funding through the Violence Against Women Act, which boosts services for survivors.

Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) of Florida and Tom Marino (R) of Pennsylvania cosponsored the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act. Last week, Congress included $5 million in the criminal justice appropriations bill to fund the incentives for one year (and the law allows the same amount to be spent annually for four additional years).

The additional funding is needed because more than one third of support programs for survivors have waiting lists for core services such as counseling, said Terri Poore, a public policy consultant to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, during the Wednesday press call. This issue of child custody and visitation rights for rapists “has outraged advocates,” she says, and the new federal law gives them “a tool to push forward this work in their states.” 

Vermont passed a law last year that includes the clear and convincing standard. High poverty rates and sexual exploitation are increasingly issues in the state, and “we really need to shore up these protections for victim parents ... so that they don’t have to continually relive the trauma,” says Auburn Watersong, associate director of public policy for the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Montpelier, in a phone interview.

Ohio recently passed a bill that requires conviction of the rapist. “It is a step forward,” but advocates are still pushing for allowing cases with clear and convincing evidence, says Katie Hanna, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, in a phone interview. The fact that federal law now offers more money to states that adopt that standard will lead to “a different conversation” when advocates again bring the issue to the legislature, she says.

Florida law is often looked to as a model. It passed in 2013 with the clear and convincing standard, largely because of activism spearheaded by Prewitt and Florida resident Analyn Megison, co-founders of the Illinois-based nonprofit Hope After Rape Conception.

Like Prewitt, Ms. Megison has been raising a daughter conceived about 10 years ago when she was raped. Florida did not have legislation offering her specific protection at that time, but a judge granted a hearing and the rapist dropped pursuit of parental rights.

Before the Florida law went through, “it was a subject no one wanted to address ... and now, not only are people having conversations about it, but I see a very solutions-minded approach,” Megison says in a phone interview.

When Mr. Obama signed the law, she says she was “overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness.” Despite the pushback she received from her ex-husband (not the rapist) and others, “it made me feel like it was not a sacrifice made in vain to push through and be involved with this,” she says. “And I’m not done yet. I want to see all these states get on board and be eligible for this funding because of this national law.”

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