Should Rapists Have Parental Rights?

The Daily Show did a segment on rapists and parental rights last week. Samantha Bee hugged adorable animals while dealing with the reality that women cannot terminate their rapist’s parental rights. Even though proposed laws terminating rapist’s parental rights have bipartisan support, about twenty states have yet to pass any laws regarding the parental rights of rapists.

RapeDisturbingly, many of these rapists will use child custody battles in family court as a means to drop the rape charges against them in criminal court. Many mothers will elect not to testify against the rapists rather than go through a soul-numbing child custody battle. As a result, many rapists walk out of criminal court free. The rapists don’t leave because they’re innocent though; they’re free because they used the family court to blackmail the victim.

This isn’t a small issue. According to Shauna Prewitt, an attorney who personally experienced this vicious system, about 32,000 women each year become pregnant after being raped. At least a third of them give birth and raise the child.

The Child’s Best Interest Are Not Served by Rush of Judgment

The parental rights of rapists are one of the toughest issues a family law court will face. It’s important that we have this debate. But this debate is ending in the wrong direction. The focus of a child custody dispute is, and always should be, about the child.

All press is focused on the mother. Congresswoman Schultz’s description of a nightmare scenario placed the listener in the mother’s head. “Every other weekend, you have to meet your rapist in a Denny’s parking lot and hand over your child? No, that can’t be real.” Congresswoman Schultz believed the solution was obvious. “If you’re the victim of rape, and you conceive a child, then you should be able to terminate your rapist’s parental rights.” Once again, the focus is on what the woman should be able to do, rather than what the child’s prospects could be.

Congresswoman Schultz means well, but “conception by rapist” is an emotional rallying cry for women’s rights rather than a real thoughtful assert of a child’s future. If we give a kneejerk reaction, we may miss certain problems.

The most obvious problem is that we are assuming the father is guilty. Unless the father pleads guilty or is convicted of rape, the father is not a rapist. In rape cases, one of the strongest defenses is that the woman consented to sex. Evidence is hard to come by in those cases, so it comes down to a “he said, she said” battle. In child custody cases, the parents may be so focused on fighting each other that they cannot make good decisions for the child.

Family courts use the child’s best interest standard because parents often need reminders that their fight is about their child, not each other. There are plenty of child custody cases where the mother falsely accuses the father of hitting her or stealing from her or abusing her, in the hopes that the court will give her sole custody. Family law judges and lawyers wouldn’t be surprised if a mother lies about being raped in order to gain sole custody.

I’m not saying that all women who accuse the father of rape are lying. I’m certainly not suggesting that fathers should use child custody as leverage to get out of criminal court. But rape and child custody are highly emotional topics where evidence may be hard to come by. If the mother is lying about the rape and the state terminates the father’s parental rights, it is the child who will suffer.

Instead of a unilateral termination of parental rights if the mother accuses the father of raping her, states could enact a law prohibiting parents from dropping criminal charges in exchange for child custody. It would not be in a child’s best interest to have a parent sacrifice the child so that the parent can remain out of prison. Prohibiting child custody settlements from dropping criminal charges is a solution that would protect the defendant’s criminal rights, the mother’s rights, and the child’s best interests.

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