Advocates for a bill that would let courts terminate the parental rights of fathers in cases where a baby was conceived in rape found their legislation on a fast track Thursday but couldn’t avoid bumps.
The Senate version of the bill received an unusually early hearing in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, on the second day of session when most committees are doing nothing more than getting organized.
The scheduling reflects the new priority given legislation that has been introduced for the last decade only to fail every time. Last year it came tantalizingly close for women’s rights advocates but died on the last night of the session when Senate and House negotiators couldn’t reach agreement on time. While both sides said they agreed with the principle that men who became fathers as a result of rape don’t deserve parental rights, they got tripped up over details.
Negative publicity over the bill’s failure prompted Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch to make the bill a priority this year and to lend their support as co-sponsors. Gov. Larry Hogan has also expressed support.
But a consensus of the governor and providing officers doesn’t guarantee a smooth ride in Judicial Proceedings or its House counterpart, the Judiciary Committee.
At Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Michael J. Hough, a Frederick County Republican, showed he wasn’t in on any accord.
The bill would allow a court to terminate a man’s parental rights if he was convicted in the rape that conceived the child — a provision that has never been controversial.
The legislation would also let a woman seek to end the parental rights of a man who fathered the child without consent if she can show in a civil proceeding that he committed sexual assault. The legal standard would be “clear and convincing evidence,” a stricter test that the preponderance of evidence used in most civil cases but short of the evidence required for a criminal conviction.
Where the bill ran into trouble in Thursday’s hearing was over a second part of the test to end parental rights without a conviction. The measure would also require the mother to show under the clear and convincing standard that termination of the father’s rights was in the best interests of the child.
Hough, an influential voice on the committee despite being in the minority party, demanded that that language be stricken from the bill, stating that he saw no circumstances under which a man found to have committed rape should retain parental rights.
“This bill would say a judge could still give parental rights to a rapist,” he said.
One of the leading witnesses for the bill, executive director Lisae Jordan of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, attempted to explain why that language was in the bill. She said there may be rare instances, such as when the father has developed a relationship with an older child before the mother wants to terminate his rights, when a court might want to consider whether ending his parental rights is good for the child.
“This bill has been well-vetted. It’s been well developed,” Jordan said. She assured Hough that such cases would be few and far between, but the senator was not persuaded.
Jordan, a family law attorney, said later that the bill is “ready to be passed” and that it will help rape victims who become pregnant. She expressed concern that adding amendments in the Senate could delay the bill’s passage and reopen wrangling with the House.
“It’s hard not to think these suggested amendments regarding an issue that has been in the bill all 10 years is anything but a ruse to try to defeat this bill once again,” Jordan said. She said that in all the years she has been closely tracking the bill, Hough has never made an issue of that language, which has been in versions that passed the Senate in previous sessions.
Hough could not be reached Thursday evening for comment.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 30 states — but not Maryland — allow or require the complete termination of parental rights in cases of rape. Fourteen of them do not require a conviction to terminate those rights, according to legislative analysts.
Sen. Brian Feldman, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee that requiring a conviction is too steep a bar when only a small percentage of rapes result in a guilty verdict. He said victims need an expedited process so they can make decisions about such matters as adoption without having to give their assailant a voice in the decision.
Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat, said his bill is the rare measure that has the support of both Planned Parenthood and the Maryland Catholic Conference.
Colby Wittenberg, who works at the AdoptionsTogether.org agency, described working with rape victims who have become pregnant as a result. She said that when the women are from Maryland, she has to tell them the father has a legal right to object to the adoption.
“When they hear that, they decide, well, adoption’s not for me,” she said. “I can tell you with certainty that some of them have gone to termination.”