Maryland lawmakers consider revoking parental rights of rapists

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Maryland women would be able to revoke rapists' parental rights under this bill.

Rape victims who do not want to raise a child conceived during a sexual assault have two options in Maryland: abortion or persuading their attackers to sign off on an adoption.

For nearly 10 years, advocates tried unsuccessfully to change state law so that rape victims could sever ties with their assailants by terminating rapists' parental rights.

A bill that would do that has advanced further in the General Assembly this year than it ever has before.

"Maryland's the only state that I'm aware of where there has been years and years of battles, and nothing has changed," said Shauna Prewitt, a lawyer, activist and mother of an 11-year-old conceived during rape. "The thing that's most surprising to me, honestly, is just that it hasn't happened earlier."

The bill, unanimously approved by the House of Delegates this week, would have Maryland join the 30 states that allow women to terminate the parental rights of rapists, both in cases when a woman wants to raise the child and when she doesn't.

Despite the legislation's progress, key lawmakers say final passage is not certain. The matter is hung up on how to extend it beyond convicted rapists to cases of alleged rape, many of which are not reported and the vast majority of which are not prosecuted.

"Nobody thinks that someone who is a rapist should have parental rights. I mean, that's insane," said state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat and chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which will consider the issue within the next week.

"That being said, you want to define [the law] correctly. You don't want to catch people up who aren't rapists," said Zirkin, a criminal defense attorney from Baltimore County. "We're taking an extremely hard look."

The issue has united groups from Planned Parenthood and abortion rights group NARAL to Maryland Right to Life and the Maryland Catholic Conference.

About 5 percent of rapes result in pregnancy, according to a 1996 study cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the estimated 37,000 pregnancies conceived in rape each year, women place the babies up for adoption less than 6 percent of the time. About a third keep the babies and raise them; half opt for abortion. About 11 percent miscarry.

Adoption lawyers who have lobbied for the bill argue that many clients who have been raped would rather terminate their pregnancies than risk their attacker's refusal to grant an adoption.

"If he objects … the adoption plan is done," said Jennifer Fairfax, a Silver Spring lawyer and vice president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "She will be forced to parent that child, and she will be forced to enter into child support and custody arrangements with her rapist. There is no other option."

And while many lawmakers agree that the state should revoke parental rights for convicted rapists, the legislation has been hung up for years by arguments over what to do in cases of alleged rape.

"In the case where there's someone convicted of rape, that's certainly no problem with anybody. This bill does not require conviction," said Del. Joseph Vallario, who for at least seven years prevented a bill from getting out of the House Judiciary Committee he chairs.

"We're trying to make sure that if we're going to take some child away from the parent that he's given all the safeguards," said Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat. "I do not take termination of parental rights very lightly."

Del. Kathleen Dumais and other advocates said that because fewer than 10 percent of rapes are reported and prosecuted, a law that kicked in after a conviction would not be effective. She estimated that even without requiring a conviction, the bill would affect a "handful" of women each year.

Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, broke down in tears of frustration this month as she begged Vallario and the rest of the Judiciary Committee during a hearing, which she sits on as vice chairman, to move the bill to the full House.

"It seems really simple to me," she said, apologizing for her show of emotion. "Apparently, it is not to some."

The bill advanced from committee with amendments backed by Vallario — and then approved unanimously by the House — that would grant a father accused of rape a public defender and immunity from criminal prosecution for anything said in the parental rights proceeding.

"He should know what he's doing when he testifies," said Vallario, noting that if a man asserts he is the father, he's testifying that he had sex with the woman — something that, without immunity, could be used later in a criminal case to prove a rape took place. "Before that, you might have a tough time even proving he was there."

Thirty states allow rape victims to terminate the parental rights of their attackers, and 14 of those do not require a conviction. Maryland is among the 20 states that do not consider a pregnancy caused by rape reason enough to terminate a father's rights.

There is not a way for one parent in Maryland to ask the court to terminate the rights of the other, several family lawyers said. That process only can be initiated by a social services agency.

The Maryland State Bar Association has objected to the legislation, giving lawmakers a five-page memo of technical legal concerns about setting up a civil process that determines whether a father committed rape.

The association's lobbyist in Annapolis, Richard Montgomery, said the organization supports a way to terminate the parental rights of rapists without a formal conviction. But the bar worries about whether the proposed method has enough safeguards to protect fathers who aren't rapists.

"We remain open-minded," said Montgomery, adding that he won't have a position on the amended bill until next week.

The state Senate has unanimously passed legislation that would have revoked parental rights of rapists four times. Those bills passed when Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh was chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Now Zirkin has that role. He said Wednesday he wished he had taken a closer look at the proposal before.

"Because the bill doesn't require a conviction, it gets really complicated," he said.

Advocates said they'll continue to push for the bill every year until it's passed.

"It's a handful of cases a year, but for the women who become pregnant as the result of rape, it's hugely important," said Lisae Jordan, executive director of Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "It's one of those bills that reflects our values and how we treat women in Maryland."

ecox@baltsun.com

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