ANNAPOLIS – Delegate 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 Delegate 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 survivors,” 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.
The bar association’s laws committee, which consists of family lawyers, criminal lawyers and appellate court judges, offered to work with Dumais after last year’s bill, but she decided to consult another group, Montgomery said.
“We’re trying to help and we’re trying to give guidance,” Montgomery said. “Our opposition is procedural, not philosophical. We have great concern and great sympathy for rape victims and the children of rape victims.”
The opposition to the bill “shows a complete lack of understanding and appreciation for the trauma of rape on the part of the chairman and the association,” Dumais said.
Vallario just last week agreed to stop blocking Noah’s Law, a drunken-driving bill he had refused to move out of his committee since 2009.
A 1996 American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology national study found that 50 percent of women who were raped decided to get an abortion, 32 percent kept their child and 6 percent put the baby up for adoption. The remaining 12 percent of women in the study had miscarriages.
The bill’s Senate counterpart, sponsored by Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, has 33 co-sponsors from both parties, also more than half of its legislative chamber.
Vallario is among the three out of 22 House Judiciary members who did not co-sponsor the bill, along with Delegates Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore, and Pamela E. Queen, D-Montgomery.
Queen is supportive of the bill, but she was sworn in on Feb. 26 and could not become a cosponsor, a member of the delegate’s staff said.
Carter did not respond to calls for comment.
To assist women who had experiences similar to her own, Prewitt cofounded Hope After Rape Conception, a national advocacy organization that offers education and support to rape victims about state legislation and what their options are.
“There’s a conversation taking place in our country,” Prewitt said.