ANNAPOLIS — A state Senate committee heard testimony Thursday for and against a bill that would prevent accused rapists from claiming parental rights over children conceived during an alleged sexual assault.
Under the Rape Survivor Family Protection Act, sponsored by state Senator Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, a court could declare that a man is not the legal father of a child he conceived from an alleged rape.
Maryland law currently allows a man accused of fathering a child through rape to weigh in on custody and adoption decisions, including potentially preventing the mother from putting that child up for adoption, proponents of the bill said.
“I think if you ask 15 people on the street what they think the law is, most of them think it’s absolutely outrageous that a rapist would have parental rights,” said Lisae Jordan, legislative counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, who testified at the committee meeting.
More than a dozen state groups lent their voices to Raskin’s bill, in person or in writing, including women’s advocacy groups, Catholic and Jewish groups, family planning organizations, social workers, the state attorney general’s office, the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the office of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Proponents said the act would protect a rape survivor and her child by excluding her accused rapist from family decision-making.
“Right now we don’t distinguish between men who conceive the ordinary way and men who conceive through the course of rape,” Raskin told the committee. “There have been cases where men have intervened … to block an adoption, and this would simply allow … the woman to petition the court to demonstrate that the man should have no rights in a case like that.”
The bill outlines a “clear and convincing evidence” standard, common in state family law, for finding that the alleged rape occurred.
The state public defender’s office opposes the proposed law because it does not require a criminal rape conviction, which carries higher standards to prove guilt.
“Both the standard of proof and the standard of evidence that’s being proposed by this bill is less than what is required in our criminal justice system,” said Ricardo Flores, government relations director for the public defender’s office. “It basically codifies hearsay.”
Flores said prior statements made by the child’s mother regarding the circumstances of conception wouldn’t be allowed as evidence in criminal proceedings.
The bill would allow courts to consider these statements in what Raskin described as a concession to “skeptics” who oppose the legislation.
Just four of 34 states to consider this issue have found that a rape conviction is not necessary for a court to revoke parental rights, Flores said.
Proponents of the bill said the “clear and convincing” standard is consistent with other family law cases and more beneficial to the child compared to the lengthy criminal conviction process.
The bill would require an initial court hearing within 30 days of the mother’s request to terminate paternal rights.
“Many of the reasons that we terminate parental rights already involve crimes” such as child abuse and neglect, Jordan said — and those cases don’t require a conviction. “We should not subject rape victims to a higher level of proof,” she said.
Jodi Finkelstein, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, testified as a representative of NARAL and the Maryland Legislative Agenda for Women, which includes more than 30 organizations. She emphasized the broad spectrum of groups that support the act, including the Maryland Catholic Conference.
“Getting those two organizations on the same page is probably a fantastic additional reason to be able to support this bill,” Finkelstein said.
The Maryland Judicial Conference, which represents the state judiciary, issued a memorandum opposing the bill because it would allow a court to order the former father to pay child support.
“This is contrary to Maryland law regarding the rights and obligations of parents,” the memorandum said.
The conference also mentioned that the act “may present due process issues” with regard to notifying the father.
Twenty-nine senators joined Raskin as co-sponsors of the bill, but previous iterations of the legislation have failed in recent years. In the 2013 and 2014 sessions, a bill passed through the Senate, but House of Delegates versions with more than 70 co-sponsors died in the House Judiciary Committee without being voted on.
“We’re hopeful with so many new members in the House of Delegates, that perhaps they’ll be able to encourage a vote and put some more pressure to have the issue resolved,” Jordan said.
House Judiciary Committee Chair Joseph Vallario declined to comment about the bill.
There were 1,169 reported rapes in Maryland in 2013, according to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
John Greene, an Annapolis adoption lawyer who said he has been involved with about 1,400 adoption proceedings in 25 years of practice, said rape “fairly frequently” results in a birth.
“There are situations — and I’ve seen many over the years — where people have been impregnated through rape, and the law in Maryland is that that rapist has the same rights to make a decision as to whether an adoption should happen as the biological mom,” said Greene, who testified at the senate committee hearing. “And that’s just appalling to those people who have been raped and want to make the best decision for themselves, and also for that child.”