Legislation in the Maryland General Assembly would enable a court to revoke parental rights of an individual who has been found to have committed rape against the other parent and if a court finds that it is in the child’s best interest to remove the parental rights.
The Maryland House of Delegates voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate Thursday.
“We’re so pleased the bill came out of the House,” Lisae Jordan, executive director for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “We look forward to seeing what happens with it in the (Senate) Judicial Proceedings Committee.”
The pair of companion bills has bipartisan support. The House bill has 94 co-sponsors and there are 36 co-sponsors in the Senate. The bills allow a court to decide whether a parent should have their parental rights revoked if they committed an unwanted sexual act against the other parent that resulted in conceiving a child.
Current law states that a victim cannot have the parental rights of an assailant revoked if the conception of a child came from a sexual assault.
“The purpose of this bill is to provide a process where if a child was conceived without consent, there would be a court process where the one parent could go forward and say ‘I would like my attacker’s parental rights terminated,’” Delegate Kathy Dumais, lead sponsor for the House bill, told the House Judiciary committee on Feb. 9.
“No one suggests terminating parental rights should be taken lightly. We have tried to make it crystal clear that it’s not supposed to be easy.”
The bill allows a victim of a sexual assault that has resulted in a pregnancy to ask a court to terminate the parental rights of the assailant. The court must meet certain provisions laid out in the bill before it terminates those rights.
Activists testifying at the hearing emphasized that a suspect could use the threat of parental rights against a victim.
“These legal rights essentially allow him to blackmail his victim by refusing to agree to adoption or continuing to pursue custody unless she makes concessions,” Diana Rubin, a commissioner for the Montgomery County Commission for Women, told the committee.
Decisions in the family court, which is a civil proceeding, can’t be used in a criminal court. If the family court determines that parental rights can be revoked, that there is clear and convincing evidence that a sexual assault occurred, that decision can’t be used against the defendant in any other court.
“The strength in this bill is that there is a great deal of protection for everyone involved,” Jordan testified. “This is something we need.”
Under current law, the second parent must be notified if the victim wishes to put the child up for adoption. The assailant has rights to halt adoption processes.
Activists who testified at the Judiciary Committee said that often a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy when they learn that their assailant has parental rights that can’t be revoked.
“If someone has forced themselves on someone else, there’s no way to just terminate the rapist’s rights,” Jordan testified. “This is a problem that needs to be solved. The courthouse doors are closed to women who become pregnant as a result of rape.”
“A sexual assault is a devastating experience and a pregnancy resulting from that sexual assault is a daily reminder of that violation,” Colby Wittenberg, domestic infant program manager for Adoptions Together, testified. “Without the protection of this bill, women who become pregnant as a result of a rape lose their privacy at best. At worst, they face the unimaginable circumstance of potentially co-parenting with their assailant.”
Under the bill, a child conceived from sexual assault could also file to have parental rights revoked through a court appointed representative or through a guardian.
Under current law, if the assailant is not known, the woman’s name and plans for adoption have to be advertised in local newspapers in an attempt to notify the assailant of the victim’s plans.
The court can’t terminate parental rights if the parents were married at the time the child was conceived, unless the suspect has been convicted of rape or if there was a protective order in place at the time of conception, under the bill.
In other cases, where the parents were not married, the court can revoke parental rights if there is a conviction or if the court determines there is clear and convincing evidence that a rape occurred, according to a state document, under the bill.
The court must also decide that removing parental rights is in the best interest of the child. The bill says a child’s parent can file to have the parental rights of the assailant revoked within seven years of the child’s birth, or when the parent should have known the identity of the other parent.
Termination of parental rights means that the parent’s rights of guardianship and visitation are revoked. It also removes the parent’s responsibility to support the child financially.
“I think this is one of the only bills where the Maryland Catholic Conference and Planned Parenthood will sit at a table together because many of those women who walked away from adoption, elected to terminate the pregnancy.” Dumais said. Both groups submitted written testimony supporting the bill.
By CARRIE SNURR