BY DIANE DIMOND
OK, ready to be outraged?
Here’s the scenario: A woman says she has been raped. She makes a police report, undergoes the humiliating rape kit testing procedure and names the man she says attacked her. Later, she discovers she is pregnant by the attacker. The police may or may not have charged the suspect with a crime at this point, but his lawyer is already hard at work. The suspect does a little background digging on the woman and discovers there is a baby on the way. The next step? He sends word that he will assert his parental rights to be a part of the child’s life for the next 18 years unless the victim drops her criminal complaint and refuses to testify against him.
Imagine this woman being required to take her child on regular prison visits for 18 years. Or, if the man is never charged, which has happened far more often that the public realizes, she’s staring at 18 years of shared custody and face-to-face co-parenting with the man who raped her.
What should she do? Does she push forward and testify to spare society a rapist on the street — even if that will subject her child to 18 years of anxiety? A better question is, why is a victim put in this defensive position in the first place?
You might be wondering how many women find themselves in this situation. Well, the short answer is that no one really knows. The majority of rapes in the U.S. are not reported to police, and there have only been a couple of decades-old studies done on the topic of rape-related pregnancy. Various studies indicate that there are 17,000 to 32,000 rape-related pregnancies each year in the United States.
Whatever the figure may be today, the fact is that even one case where a rape victim is coerced into an unwanted parental relationship with her rapist is one too many. So, what are states doing to protect these women?
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nearly three dozen states and the District of Columbia have legislation regarding sexual assault perpetrators’ parental rights, but 22 of them require a conviction of sexual assault which resulted in the birth of a child in order for parental rights to be terminated. Exact information is hard to come by, but between 15 and 18 states have no laws in place to protect victims from their rapists seeking shared custody or visitation.
Remember Ariel Castro, that kidnapping creep in Cleveland, Ohio, who snatched up young girls and held them captive for years in his boarded-up home? After they escaped, while Castro was behind bars, he had the gall to ask for visitation rights to see a 6-year-old girl he fathered with one of his victims! Even though Ohio requires a conviction before parental rights are taken away, the judge, Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Russo, had the good sense to deny Castro’s hideous request.
Bravo! And may judges across the land use their good judgment to decide these cases, no matter what the law is in their particular state.
I could cite thousands of rape-related pregnancy cases. One involved a 14-year-old girl in Massachusetts who was impregnated by the 20-year-old man who raped her. Shauna Prewitt is one of the victims to go public with her story. She was raped and impregnated during her senior year of college. As she was pursing charges against the man, he suddenly served her with papers demanding custody of Prewitt’s infant daughter. The ensuing court battle was a nightmare. Today, Prewitt is a custody rights attorney in Chicago, Illiinois. She is fighting for all states to pass legislation denying sexual predators parental rights. Prewitt acknowledges she has critics, especially those who fear that wrongfully accused men could be denied their Constitutional rights.
In an interview with Inside Edition, Prewitt said: “I’ll hear, ‘how do we know that a woman isn’t just going to cry rape in order to take custody rights away from a good man?’ There are multiple answers to that. There’s always potential for people to abuse laws, but our country has never been afraid of passing a law because there’s the potential to abuse it.”
On the federal level, the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act was passed and signed into law in May 2016. It awards money to states that have legislation that benefits rape victims caught up in this awful cycle.
While this is a step forward, some states continue to lag behind, stubbornly refusing to curb the rights of those who sexually prey on others, even though their rights can’t possibly be in the best interest of the child. And, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net