Providing women the right to ask a court to terminate the parenting rights of someone who fathered a child through rape ought to be a pretty easy call for a General Assembly that claims to care about victims of crime. And, indeed, a majority of lawmakers this year supported such legislation, which had previously been introduced — and failed — eight years in a row. It died a ninth time earlier this month (on the last day of the session for the second year in a row) in what has quickly become one of the more embarrassing episodes of the term.
Who killed it and how? There are enough suspects for a good round of the board game "Clue" — on paper, it came down to minor differences in the House and Senate versions that a conference committee failed to work out before the 90-day clock ran out. But where were House and Senate leaders, who could have intervened much earlier? What about the House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. who refused to put the bill's lead sponsor, Montgomery County Del. Kathleen Dumais (or any of the other seven women on his committee, for that matter), on the conference committee and offered only cockamamie excuses as to why? Or Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Bobby A. Zirkin for dragging his feet on the bill? And the intrigues go on from there.
Given that delegates and senators agreed in concept that women shouldn't have to negotiate with rapists over the custody of a child, the lingering details — how long should a rape victim have to assert her claim (three or seven years), what steps should she take to notify an alleged rapist who might be difficult to track down (if, for example, the mother's name should be published), and to what extent can testimony in such a civil action be used in a criminal proceeding — were never insurmountable. Rather, what seems to have happened is that enthusiasm for the family law legislation was relatively low — not surprising given that it took some intervention by Speaker Michael E. Busch to even get the bill out of House committee last year — and the bill simply got shuffled off to what some must have hoped would be a quiet death.
There are, of course, outright opponents of the bill. Some claim that a court shouldn't have the power to sever the parenting rights of someone who hasn't necessarily been criminally convicted of rape. But that's a bit of a red herring given that the standard imposed by the bill — "clear and convincing" evidence of rape as determined by a court — is the same standard used when there's a move to terminate parental rights because of child abuse, and it is the same standard that has been used in a handful of other states. The notion that women might routinely lie about a rape claim as part of a child custody negotiation stretches credulity given the various protections the measure offered — not to mention the unfair stigma still attached to being a rape victim.
The bill did not die a quiet death but instead has received national, even international attention. The public has evidently had enough of the lack of empathy for rape victims evident in the bill's repeated death, not to mention legislative leaders' failure to make it a priority while it was still alive — or even to appoint a single woman on the conference committee if only for the sake of optics. How perfect that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has now dangled it as a reason for the legislature to return to Annapolis for a special session, an especially cynical and disingenuous maneuver given that Mr. Miller's real priority is to get a second crack at Maryland's medical marijuana law so that he might steer licenses to certain parties.
Here's an idea. Why don't House Speaker Busch and Senate President Miller stand up and promise to make 2017's House Bill 428 into House Bill 1 of 2018? They might even appoint a work group (with actual women involved) to go over the details and make whatever tweaks they deem necessary for the measure to win final passage and land on the governor's desk long before sine die. It wouldn't be a radical idea. At least 34 states have enacted legislation regarding the parental rights of perpetrators of sexual assault. But it would go a long way toward restoring faith that lawmakers care about women and, in particular, the victims of rape.