It is the stuff nightmares are made of: the victim of a rape being traumatized all over again by being forced to do battle with her rapist over custody of the child born of the rape. This issue motivated the Rape Survivor Custody Act, which was passed by Congress in May 2015. Disturbingly, it is not uncommon for rapists to seek custody of their children conceived from rape, even while awaiting trial for the assault on the child’s mother.
In fact, before he committed suicide in prison, kidnapper Ariel Castro sought visitation with the child he fathered with Amanda Berry, one of the women he held captive and raped for years. Judge Michael Russo denied the request, stating “I just think that would be inappropriate.” However, at that time, Ohio had no laws which would deny Castro’s parental rights because of his assault on the mother of child.
It is understandable that such indignities would cause outcry and a call for change. However, well-intentioned laws aiming at preventing rapists from obtaining custody of children may wrongly deprive some defendants of due process and keep some children from knowing their fathers.
The Rape Survivor Custody Act and the Origin of Senate Bill 629
Last year, Congress approved the Rape Survivor Custody Act, which provides money to states to pass laws denying parental rights to the fathers of children conceived as a result of rape. Recently, with overwhelming support, Michigan passed just such a law. In December 2015, the Michigan Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 629, which was introduced by Republican Senator Rick Jones.
Jones, who spent 31 years in law enforcement, called upon his own experience working with victims of sexual assault in introducing the bill. “Sometimes it’s an acquaintance rape, they don’t wish to bring charges and put the person in prison; sometimes the victim simply doesn’t want to go through the criminal trial.”
A reading of the text of Senate Bill 629 reflects the specific outcome it aims to prevent. The bill states that, when the mother of a child conceived of rape applies for public aid, a claim for child support from the biological father is triggered. This then presents an opportunity for the rapist to manipulate his victim by using the support dispute to pressure the victim to drop criminal claims against him. Or, he may use the dispute as an opportunity to assault and traumatize the victim all over again.
The decision of a rape victim to carry a baby to term, or choose to have an abortion, is also inextricably linked to this debate. In his support of the bill, Jones said, “I’ve actually heard of horrible cases where the rapist contacted the victim after they heard that a child had been conceived and said: ‘Get an abortion, and if you don’t, I will be going for custody.’”
How Senate Bill 629 Lowers the Evidentiary Standard
Previously, under Michigan state law, a court could terminate parental rights only once the father was convicted of sexual assault in criminal court. Senate Bill 629, by contrast, allows the family court to terminate parental rights upon petition by the victim to the family court.
A notable change that Senate Bill 629 implements is the lowering of the evidentiary standard. Previously, a conviction of sexual assault required that the prosecutor show guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that there is a great likelihood that the accused committed the crime. While courts are hesitant to attach percentages to this standard, many believe that “beyond a reasonable doubt” means 90%, 95%, or even 99% confidence that the accused committed the crime.
Senate Bill 629 lowers the evidentiary standard to “clear and convincing evidence.” Under this legal standard, the evidence must be substantially more probable to be true rather than to be untrue (51% to 60%). This is a significantly lower standard of evidence, especially considering that the stakes, loss of parental rights, are high.
Will this Law Have Unintended Consequences?
While the motivation for laws like Senate Bill 629 are understandable, there may be unintended consequences as a result of this law and those like it.
Lowering the evidence standard means that a person accused of rape may have his parental rights terminated without being convicted of a crime, or without the benefit of a trial. That being said, rape is a notoriously under-reported crime, and the procedure surrounding rape trials is known to be extremely difficult on the victim of the crime. For this and other reasons, it is estimated that only 1 in 5 rapes are reported. However, an attempt to circumvent and alleviate a difficult criminal process for the victim of the crime may threaten the procedural safeguards put in place for the criminal defendant by the Constitution.
For example, if proceedings are held in family court, it is unlikely the accused will be provided free representation by an attorney, a right only guaranteed in criminal court. A lowered standard of proof may also run the risk of misuse or abuse by the accuser, which could result in a father losing parental rights as a result of the mere allegation of rape—which perhaps he did not commit. It is also unclear if this law applies in the case of statutory rape, which could lead to inequitable results.
Senate Bill 629 also raises questions whether the family court is the appropriate forum for these decisions. The roles of the criminal and family courts are vastly different. Family court does not consider guilt or innocence, and is not intended to be a penal system.
Also notably absent is the voice of the minor child. Disputes in family court involving child custody are held to the “best interests of the child standard.” This standard prioritizes the wellbeing and development of the minor child over the parent’s desires. Arguably, it may be in the best interest of a child to be protected from a father who seeks to victimize his mother.
However, an unintended result of Senate Bill 629 and similar laws may be that children conceived of rape are denied the future ability to decide to have a relationship with his or her own father—however difficult that decision may one day be.