Preventing Rapists from Obtaining Child Custody
Many child custody cases are heart-breaking, but the most horrific cases involve children who were forcibly conceived. The law struggles with what appears to be the easiest of questions: do rapists have child custody rights?
The Horrific Case of Tiffany and Christopher Mirasolo
In September 2008, 12 year old Tiffany and her sister slipped out at night to meet a boy. The boy’s older friend, 18 year old Christopher Mirasolo, offered to take the girls on a car ride. Instead, Mirasolo held them captive in a vacant house for two days. After raping Tiffany, he released the girls, but threatened to kill them if the girls reported him.
When Tiffany became pregnant, Mirasolo was arrested. He was sentenced to a year in county jail, but only served half a year, to look after his sick mother. Mirasolo was arrested for a second sex assault on a teenage victim two years later. He only served 4 years in prison.
Meanwhile, Tiffany struggled to support the son she gave birth to as a pre-teen. She skipped high school and went straight to work to support her boy. Unfortunately, Tiffany did not make enough money to support her child, so she applied for welfare. Shockingly, state welfare services would not help her unless she named who the father was. When Tiffany named Christopher Mirasolo as the father, state support service filed a support claim on Tiffany’s behalf. The support claim resulted in Tiffany sharing joint child custody with her rapist.
Why Would the Judge Grant Joint Legal Custody?
Many states have guidelines and/or laws limiting how welfare is distributed. When Tiffany applied for welfare as a single mother, the state likely has an automatic process whereby it attempts to obtain child support from the father before providing welfare. The goal of course is to save taxpayer money and to transfer the obligation of supporting the child to the responsible party, the other parent.
In order for the state to order a man to pay child support, he must be proven to be the father of the child. Ordinarily, this would be a reasonable policy. The state cannot force people to be couples, but it can try to force people to be responsible for the offspring they create. However, all these reasonable policies and assumptions break down when it is obvious that the mother and father should not be in the same room. Judges have discretion to determine custody arrangements, but judges are bound by state law. Unless there is a statute that prohibits a judge from granting joint custody, most judges will err on the side of joint custody.
However, states vary in how they approach rape and child custody. In 20 states and the District of Columbia, a rape conviction is required before termination of parental rights is allowed. Five states, Wyoming, North Dakota, Minnesota, Alabama and Maryland, do not have any laws prohibiting rapists from obtaining child custody. Since criminals are primarily state laws, the most the federal government can do is encourage states to enact laws barring child custody to rapists. The Rape Survivor Child Custody Act, signed by President Obama in 2015, gives states funds for passing laws that prevent convicted rapists from obtaining child custody. That’s the extent of the federal government’s involvement in custody and criminal cases though.
How Can We Change Course?
According to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, about 5% of rape victims become pregnant as a result of rape; that’s about 32, 101 pregnancies per year. In percentages, the number is not high. However, each pregnancy because of rape brings out legal and ethical issues that impact both the mother and the child.
First, raising a child together is arguably a more intimate relationship than sex itself. I have sat through custody hearings where the judge reminds young parents that “you will likely see each other at your child’s teacher-parent meeting, soccer games, college admission tours, wedding, and the birth of your grandchildren. The commitment you made when you decided to have a child together is not a commitment that ends in 18 years; it is a lifetime commitment.” Normally these are words of wisdom. Forcing a rape victim to forge this daily and emotional relationship with the rapist would only lead to more traumas and would likely reduce the victim’s ability to take care of herself, let alone her child.
Second, forcing the child to spend time with the rapist/father would endanger the child. If someone like Mirasolo was willing to kidnap and rape a 12 year old, there is no guarantee that he would not rape his child. Although the child in the Michigan case is a boy, rape is about power. Endangering the child’s life or threatening to do so would allow someone like Mirasolo to further control his victim. Even if professional supervised visitation is an option, it would not prevent the “father” from using the legal system to further exploit his control over the victim and the child.
If the father is convicted of raping the mother in a criminal court, it is imperative that the law extinguish the father’s custody rights. The risk to both mother and child are too great. Arguably, it might be in the best interests of the child to know where he or she came from. However, if the child wants to undertake that journey, they can do so when they are an older and independent adult, able to understand what rape is and why the man who conceived his or her existence is not a good person. If the judge does believe the child might have an interest in being raised by both the victim and the rapist, the judge should at least appoint an independent counsel for the child so that rapist’s arguments do not just outweigh the victim’s interests.