On Thursday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) held a press conference to explain their recently-introduced legislation designed to help rape survivors maintain full custody rights over their children. The lawmakers were joined by Shauna Prewitt, a rape survivor and victims’ rights advocate who was forced to endure the type of custody battle with her rapist that the bill seeks to prevent.
The Rape Survivor Child Custody Act would provide funding incentives to states that have laws allowing mothers of children conceived through rape to “seek court-ordered termination of the parental rights of her rapist.” These states would receive federal grant funding for programs authorized under the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
Currently, 31 states have no custodial rights protections for mothers of children conceived in rape. Of the 19 states that do have some protections, only six reach the standard advocated by the proposed bill. At the press conference, Prewitt explained that victims in this situation can often face a dynamic where their rapist threatens to pursue custodial rights over the child unless they drop their criminal charges.
Prewitt was speaking from personal experience. She made headlines last year when she wrote an open letter to Todd Akin — who became infamous during the 2012 election cycle for claiming that women cannot be impregnated from a “legitimate rape” — about becoming pregnant after being raped. As she pursued charges against her rapist months later, he suddenly filed for custody rights over her daughter, sending her into a long and expensive court battle.
An attorney, Prewitt wrote a paper for the Georgetown Law Journal on the issue, citing estimates that 32,000 rape-related pregnancies occur each year, where nearly a third of the women decide to raise their children. Bill co-sponsor Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) cited the same statistics, saying, “I think many people believe that people run off and have abortions and they can’t stand their children, but many of these women choose to raise their children. And the last thing that a woman who chooses to raise this child needs is the emotional and physical intervention in their parental rights.”
The proposed legislation provides incentives in the form of $5 million per year of grant funding for the next four years which will be used to bolster state funds for the STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grant. That grant supports law enforcement and prosecution strategies to combat violence against women, as well as the Sexual Assault Services Program, which provides direct intervention funding for victims of sexual assault.
The bill also encourages states to pass laws allowing survivors to petition for the termination of their rapists’ custodial rights as long as they can show that they had been raped under a “clear and convincing evidence” standard. Only six states currently have such laws, whereas thirteen others require criminal convictions for the rapist. That requires a stronger standard of evidence and can place survivors in long legal battles that may prove traumatizing.
Oregon, Missouri, and Colorado have introduced or passed custodial rights protection laws for survivors in recent years, but did not include the “clear and convincing” standard promoted by the new legislation. Illinois passed a similar custodial rights bill in June which does use the lower standard. That legislation now awaits Gov. Pat Quinn’s (D) signature.