Fundamental Flaws in the American Justice system protect rapist's custodial rights while endangering victims and their children.
The Daily Show recently aired a segment in which Samantha Bee exposes the serious injustice that pregnant rape victims face in an overwhelming majority of U.S. states. According to a 1996 study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, every year 32,000 pregnancies result from rape. That would amount to 50,000 today when adjusted to the current population. Two-thirds of these women will terminate their pregnancies, but a handful will choose to raise their child. You would imagine that the worst would be over at this point for these women. However, many end up embroiled in custody battles because the state they reside in protect's their rapist's parental rights.
Shauna Prewitt became pregnant when she was raped as a senior in college. Mother Jones reports that after her daughter was born, Prewitt was planning to press charges against her rapist. He countered with papers demanding custody of her daughter. She initially wasn't worried because of how ridiculous the situation seemed. There was no way that her rapist would be able to win partial or full custody of her daughter, right? Prewitt stated:
“I was struck with terror, not only with the idea of letting my child be around him, but also having to spend the next 18 years of my life tied to him.”
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Although it may seem despicable, this is exactly what happened to women in this situation.When a 14-year-old girl in Massachusetts gave birth after being raped, the court ordered that she and her rapist participate in “unwanted court proceedings for 16 years with the man who raped her, and to spend money on legal fees” until her child reached adulthood. The Massachusetts judge ruled that her rapist, Jamie Melendez, pay child support (which entitles him to request visitation). If she fails to attend any scheduled family court dates, she risks losing custody to her rapist. In turn, the victim has requested “that the rapist pay criminal restitution instead of child support. Both the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the family court denied her request.”
Not only does this young woman have to suffer the trauma of being raped, but she will also be forced to endure her rapist's presence for 16 additional years. Not to mention she will have to bear the emotional stress of raising a child that is a product of that violation. Victims of sexual assault spend years trying to recover from their trauma. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to regain that balance when you are forced to have a relationship with your rapist.
Many states have laws in place that severely limit women's access to facilities that will perform abortions. Some women have to travel hundreds of miles to have an abortion. What kind of options do women really have if they can only choose between 1.) traveling a long distance and navigating through confusing laws meant to discourage them from having an abortion, or 2.) having a child that could force them to spend time with their rapist for decades? If these women decide to raise their child, their state should support this decision and deny their rapist custodial rights. Advocates for pro-life and pro-choice groups agree that it is harmful to both the mother and the child if the rapist is involved in their lives.
Sadly, many rapes go unreported. Also, 13 of the 19 states that have laws in place addressing custodial rights of rapists require proof of conviction in order to waive the rapist's rights. We need to support these survivors, encourage them to make their own decisions about their bodies, and protect them from continued abuse by their rapists. We need to demand that these women are not subjected to further trauma from their assaulters. We need to address how we treat women, especially those who are victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment. Every state needs to provide women with an environment in which they feel safe enough to prosecute their rapist and are certain they can raise their child and be supported in their decision.