After nine legislative failures, state lawmakers are poised to move bills this week that would allow courts to terminate the parental rights of rapists, after eliminating a complication that has doomed the measure in previous attempts.
The state Senate gave the legislation initial approval on Friday. The chamber narrowly rejected an amendment that would have allowed mothers and children to continue receiving child support from a father after revoking his parental rights.
The Senate has backed continuing child support in the past. Reversing course brings its bill into agreement with the House of Delegates’ position on the issue — clearing the way for passage, supporters hope.
The Senate’s top Republican criticized the tactic as “caving to the House.” But the bill’s advocates said it was necessary to ensure the measure doesn’t fail for a 10th time.
Final votes are expected in both chambers this week.
“With this amendment, all the other times, the bill went down,” said Democratic Sen. Delores G. Kelley of Baltimore County, vice chairwoman of the Senate committee that unanimously approved the bill last week and narrowly rejected the child-support proposal.
The legislation has been given top priority this year in an attempt to avoid the pitfalls that have killed it year after year. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has endorsed it, and both chambers of the Democratic-led General Assembly took up hearings on the bill within the first eight days of the legislative session this month.
The central idea behind the bill — that women should be able to petition the courts to revoke the parental rights of the men who raped them — has not been controversial. The legislation would put Maryland in the company of about 30 states that allow or require the complete termination of parental rights in cases of rape.
Problems have been in the details, such as the-child support provision and a thorny element that would extend revocation rights when a father has not been convicted of rape, but the mother can show “clear and convincing evidence” that he committed sexual assault. That’s a lesser standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” required in criminal court. Critics say that could allow innocent men to lose parental rights.
Republicans, echoing a phrase frequently used by Hogan, called it “common sense” to allow mothers to continue receiving child support from their rapists, if they choose.
Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, suggested the bill’s sponsors were bowing to pressure from the House instead of doing “what’s right.”
The amendment to allow continued child support was offered by Republican Sen. Gail Bates.
“Wouldn’t it be better to include it in the law as an opportunity?” asked Bates, who represents parts of Carroll and Howard counties. “Then the woman, the victim, would have the opportunity to make that determination.”
Democrats and women’s-rights advocates said they don’t disagree. But they drafted the bill without that provision this year to improve the likelihood it would pass.
“We considered it in nine prior years,” Kelley said. “We’ve not been able to get it out.”
Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, the Montgomery County Democrat who has been sponsoring the measure for a decade, said she supports the child support provision, but leaving it out increases the chances that the two chambers’ bills are identical. Judging by history, she said, she expects they will both be approved overwhelmingly, and finally sees a clear path for passage.
In an effort to keep their version in lockstep with the House legislation, senators on Friday backed an amendment to make their bill emergency legislation, meaning it would become effective as soon as Hogan signed it. A House committee approved its bill with the same amendment this week.
“This bill passes both chambers usually unanimously and fails in conference committees,” Dumais said. “The whole point this year with everyone being on the same page is this is the bill that will pass. Let’s just get it done.”
Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said she is wary but optimistic about the legislation’s chances after Friday’s floor debate. But she said revisiting the debate over child support was cause for concern.
“It’s hard to see the proposed amendment today as anything other than an attempt to obstruct the bill and keep it from passing one more time, or turning it into a political issue to the detriment of rape survivors,” she said.
Both chambers are expected to take up the legislation Tuesday, with a preliminary review in the House and a final vote in the Senate. It could reach Hogan as soon as early next month. He has pledged to sign it.
Sponsors and advocates said they would be interested in taking up the complicated child support question next year. But for now they hope that by narrowing the bill’s scope, the 10th time will be the charm.
“This is the compromise that has been come up with,” said Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “It’s the right place to start.”