ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — A bill that would end parental rights of rapists passed both houses of the Maryland General Assembly on Tuesday — among the most visible initiatives in Annapolis echoing a cultural shift in attitudes nationwide toward sexual assault and women’s rights.
This legislation is one of a handful of bills that focus on combating sexual assault and domestic violence, including behavior that qualifies as domestic abuse and a bill addressing repeat sexual predators.
“The ‘#MeToo’ movement has played a part in pointing out the importance of handling sexual assault and domestic violence and giving women a voice in courts,” Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service earlier this month.
“#MeToo” was founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 but gained traction in 2017 when used as a hashtag on Twitter. Its goal is to “ensure survivors know they’re not alone in their journey,” according to its website.
A recent high-profile show of support came at the Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 7, when many renowned actors and actresses wore black to acknowledge the struggle of women, following the reported claims of abuse against well-known Hollywood figures like producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey.
On Tuesday, House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 2, which would both authorize a court to terminate the parental rights of an individual who has conceived a child without consent, passed in the House and Senate by unanimous votes.
The bills are expected to take effect upon enactment, but the House and Senate measures, both emergency bills, have one difference: The Senate version has been amended to provide the right to counsel for the victim and the defendant.
The legislation must be identical on both sides if it is to become law; the chambers can, through further updates this session, ensure the bills are identical.
The bill is spearheaded by Dumais, who said it is in better shape than when it was first introduced 10 years ago. House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, sat in on the Jan. 18 House bill hearing and voiced his support for the bill as well.
“I am delighted to know it’s come this far…I think that this might be the year,” Dumais said last week.
Dumais said the support of Busch and Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s, has been massive and the amount of legislators she’s seen become more supportive of these issues over her 16 sessions is encouraging.
Executive Director and Counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault Lisae Jordan, who testified and supports the bill, said she believes the “Me Too” movement has made legislators more aware of related issues, especially among women.
Beyond that, Jordan said, the allegations facing several powerful men in the national spotlight, which have resulted in the loss of both jobs and prestige, makes people think carefully about the issues, and leads her to believe more legislation on these matters will succeed.
“We are going to get some things done this year,” Jordan said confidently last week.
Jordan was recently named to a 14-person panel set up to examine policies dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace.
The panel, slated to first meet on Feb. 16, will review state policies, receive input from business leaders and policy experts, hear public testimony and make recommendations to the General Assembly’s state Legislative Policy Committee.
“We have tried to stay ahead of the curve in implementing national best practices in the Maryland General Assembly to prevent harassment of any kind,” Busch said in the release. “This esteemed panel will help us continue to push forward to make this the safest legislative workplace in the country.”
Other bills centering around the “Me Too” movement include House Bill 30, sponsored by Delegate Angela Angel, D-Prince George’s. The proposed law changes the definition of “abuse” relating to domestic violence to include harassment and malicious destruction of property.
Mildred Muhammad, the former wife of John Allen Muhammad — a sniper who terrorized the D.C. metro area in 2002 — testified and shared her story of being an intended target of her husband and how it related to domestic abuse.
“Everything that needs to be done in order to include this in the domestic violence language is vital,” Muhammad said in her testimony.
Delegate Ariana Kelly, D-Montgomery, said Tuesday the #MeToo movement had nothing to do with the success of House Bill 1. Instead, the press coverage from the failure of the bill last session and the fact it was “destined to pass” before the movement were the primary factors.
However, Kelly says #MeToo has started a change in culture in the halls of the State House.
“There’s a new awareness of the kinds of obstacles that women have been facing in politics, and in the workplace in general,” Kelly said. “And I have sensed a really strong commitment from leadership that everyone feels safe.”
On Jan. 23, the Senate Judiciary Committee met to discuss a bill sponsored by committee Chair Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, that makes another attempt at the definition of abuse. His identical Senate bill 121 is cross-filed with Dumais’ House bill 328.
Both proposals include misuse of telephone facilities and equipment, misuse of electronic communication or interactive computer service, revenge porn and visual surveillance.
The 2015 Uniform Crime Report revealed 30,534 domestic violence crimes reported in Maryland with 25,996 assault-specific crimes. An analysis of both domestic violence bills acknowledge they may increase the number of petitions for domestic violence orders, but cite no material impact on operations or finances of courts.
Two bills that permit the introduction of evidence of sexually assaultive behavior at a certain time are scheduled to be presented to the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. One is sponsored by the Hogan Administration, the other by Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, but they are essentially identical.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan supports the legislation, and an administration release said it will “give courts more tools to prosecute repeat sexual offenders.”
Angel said last week the impact of the “Me Too” movement can’t be measured until bills are actually passed, but she’s observed far different reception and openness this year to the issues it covers.