A Sunday story in the Washington Post describes a disturbing encounter between a young woman and a family services office in Alabama.
The young woman told rape crisis advocate Portia Shepherd she’d been assaulted by her step-uncle when she was just 15, and had since brought their child to term. Now her step-uncle is poised to get out of jail after a drug conviction, and he wants to be part of the family.
In Alabama, that’s totally possible. Alleged rapists can get visitation rights to or even custody of the children conceived by their actions, a situation Shepherd called “the craziest thing I have ever heard in my life.”
Alabama is one of only two states without a law terminating parental rights in rape cases. The other?
Our statutes include a long list of reasons a person’s parental status might be revoked, from abandonment to “egregious harm” inflicted upon the child, but said child being the result of a sexual assault isn’t one of them. A situation like the one described in the Post could just as easily happen here.
“Here, it’s even possible for somebody with a conviction for sexual assault to get parental rights,” Gender Justice attorney Christy Hall says.
Attempts have been made to change this. Back in 2016, Minnesota Rep. John Persell (D-Bemidji) introduced a bill that would have added termination rights in situations where there’s “clear and convincing evidence” that the child “was conceived as a result of criminal sexual conduct.” That’s similar to language used to determine, say, cases of child molestation or neglect, and half the states in the country have something like it on the books.
Unfortunately for Persell: “It didn’t go anywhere,” Hall says. She’s not aware of any further action on the subject.
It’s hard for her to say why Minnesota wouldn’t go for a law that seems to many like a no-brainer. Her guess is that there’s a “lack of care” about the issue in general. But there are some – like Ned Holstein, board chair of the National Parents Organization – who see laws like these as “an open invitation to fraud.”
“Taking a person’s child away is a grievous act,” he told the Post. “And if it is done to an innocent parent, you are also denying the child a fit parent forever and putter her into the sole custody of a ruthless parent who is willing to fabricate a heinous accusation.”
It's hard to get robust data on situations like these, but by most measures – including those used by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, or RAINN – sexual assault is vastly underreported, not the other way around. Meanwhile, the National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that between 17,000 and 32,000 rape-related pregnancies occur in the United States each year.
And that has people like Hall worried.
“I think people in Minnesota don’t realize the restrictions [on reproductive/parental rights] we already have,” she says. As recently as last session, Minnesota legislators have advocated for tighter restrictions on access to abortion in our state.
The way she sees it, we are “one potential governor away” from being where Alabama is now, and many of us don’t even know it.