Vermont lawmakers this week will consider a law strengthening the custody rights of women who bear children after being raped.
A national advocate for such women urged New Hampshire lawmakers Tuesday to help those mothers end their attackers’ parental rights. Similar is being considered in Vermont.
Shauna Prewitt, a 32-year-old Chicago attorney, told New Hampshire’s Senate Judiciary Committee she knows the anguish facing the mothers because she became pregnant after being raped 10 years ago.
“I spent a lot of time on the bathroom floor crying,” she said. “I felt dead.”
But Prewitt said her body was nurturing a new life, which gave her a reason to live. She had a baby girl and thought the worst was behind her.
“I was wrong,” she said.
During proceedings against her attacker, he filed for full custody of her daughter in a state that didn’t have a law to stop it. She couldn’t imagine co-parenting her daughter with the man, so she said she made a deal with him not to testify if he terminated his parental rights.
“My daughter was safe, but I was denied justice,” she said.
New Hampshire’s bill would expand state law to require courts to grant petitions terminating the rights upon conviction, upon a guilty plea or if a fact-finding hearing determines the child was conceived as a result of sexual assault.
Current law is discretionary and does not include the option of a fact-finding hearing.
Prewitt said New Hampshire is one of 15 states that allow, but don’t require, termination upon conviction of sexual assault. Another nine allow termination without conviction, she said.
She cites estimates from medical journals that 25,000 to 32,000 women in the U.S. become pregnant as a result of rape each year and said that 8,000 to 11,000 of them go on to raise the child conceived by rape. She said it is impossible to determine how many of them face the choice she did.
The New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union objected to making the parental rights finding mandatory. It noted the change would remove the court’s discretion in cases involving the statutory rape of a teenage girl who consented to sex with an older man. ACLU attorney Gilles Bissonnette said the best interests of the child should be paramount.
But Prewitt said the judge must take that into account regardless of whether the initial determination removing the father’s parental rights is mandatory upon conviction or the result of a fact-finding hearing.
Vermont is also considering giving victims of sexual assault the right to petition for permanent sole custody. The bill as introduced does not require a conviction for the petition to be granted and would give courts some discretion.
Rep. Maxine Grad of Moretown, vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, expects the legislation to pass the House.
“It’s a very, very important tool for a victim to have,” Grad said Tuesday.
Sarah Kenney of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said her organization has been working with legislators on the issue since 2007.
As an example of what mothers face, Kenney pointed to a 2005 case where convicted rapist Robert LeClair attempted to gain partial custody of a child he fathered with a woman when she was 15, younger than the legal age for consent. The Supreme Court sent the case back to family court in 2007 for further deliberation.
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