In a long-awaited decision that took the court eight months to decide, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that men convicted of rape who impregnate their victims have parental rights over the babies born from their crimes.
The case before the court involved a 20 year-old man who pleaded guilty to raping a fourteen year-old 8th grade girl he met at a Christian youth group. The girl became pregnant and for religious reasons decided to keep the child. The victim’s baby girl was born while criminal charges were pending, and was two years old when the perpetrator pleaded guilty. Ordered to pay financial support as a condition of his criminal sentence, the perpetrator sought visitation with the baby and offered to give up his rights if the court revoked his obligation to pay support.
The victim has been filing appeals for years in the hope of preventing her rapist from ever asserting parental rights over her daughter. Yesterday’s decision marks the first time a court explicitly ruled that a convicted impregnation rapist can assert parental rights in family court.
The decision establishes Massachusetts as the worst state in the nation on the issue.
Many other states have recognized that non-convicted offenders have parental rights, but this is believed to be the first time a court has ruled that parental rights exist even after a criminal conviction.
Attorney Wendy Murphy, who represents the victim, described the ruling as “disturbing.” “Sperm is an aggravating factor of rape,” Murphy said, “and a reason to impose a more harsh punishment on a perpetrator, not grant him the gift of parenthood.” Murphy added, “it’s easy to romanticize about babies, but ejaculation during rape increases the risk that a victim will suffer additional harm in the form of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV. This new ruling incentivizes rapists to ejaculate and punishes victims who happened to be ovulating at the time of the attack.”
“As a policy matter, the ruling is very troubling,” Murphy said. “We see time and again in cases around the country that bestowing parental rights on sex offenders gives perpetrators control over their victims’ lives for at least eighteen years, and many offenders use their parental rights as leverage to silence victims, or make ‘deals,’ which is exactly what happened with my client. The rapist offered to waive his parental rights if the victim declined financial support.”
The victim has been filing appeals for several years. Her daughter is now seven. Thus far the child has been protected from being forced to visit with her mother’s attacker because a family court judge ruled that the offender’s demand for visitation was “not sincere” as he had offered to give up his rights if he were not required to pay support. Under the new ruling, the offender can go back to family court and keep trying to obtain visitation rights until the child turns eighteen.
The court cited in its ruling a new law that was enacted by the Massachusetts legislature without public awareness while the victim’s appeal was pending. It expressly grants parental rights to “convicted” rapists, which means it will apply to a middle-aged man from Brockton who was recently incarcerated for raping and impregnating a 14 year-old child. He can now file papers from prison asking that the child born from his crime be brought to him for visits in prison.
Tens of thousands of babies are born from rape every year in the United States, often to underage mothers. The new Massachusetts ruling could influence other states now considering the issue, placing countless women and children at significant risk of further harm.
Murphy is seeking additional review from the Supreme Judicial Court, and plans other legal action. “I’m worried this case will have far reaching implications, so I’m working with a group of scholars and advocates to challenge the decision. We have strong constitutional arguments about the due process rights of women and children not to be forced to have relationships with convicted sex offenders.”
Murphy emphasized the need to protect children. “My client was a child when she was raped and impregnated. Her attacker has now been granted rights over a child he created by raping another child. Think about that. It’s beyond incomprehensible.”
Equally problematic, says Murphy, is the court’s inconsistency on the issue. “DNA alone is not enough under other Massachusetts laws to create parental rights for men who are not rapists,” Murphy said. “Sperm donors and men who donate sperm for IVF procedures, for example, have no parental rights whatsoever. They cannot even file pleadings in family court. How can convicted rapists have better rights than sperm donors?” Murphy wonders. “If sperm donors have no rung on the parental rights ladder, then rapists shouldn’t even be allowed in the garage because they made the ‘donation’ while committing a violent felony.”
One of the best ways to stem the tide of bullying is by not acting like bullies ourselves. If children learn what they live, maybe it is time we take a look at our own personal responsibility for the bullying epidemic.
*We have to stop bullying our own children by threatening, manipulating, hitting, ridiculing, or belittling them.
*We can respond rather than react, not just to our children, but also to other people throughout the day. We can respond with reason and compassion when dealing with a driver who has cut us off, a coworker’s unreasonable behavior, a spouse’s bad mood, or a neighbor’s invasive actions.
*Cutting out violence for the sake of entertainment makes violent acts a foreign concept to our children. Violent movies, video games and sports desensitize our children to other acts of violence. When violence is the “norm” and “fun” where can we go from there?
*Foster a sense of community with those beyond your inner-most circle. Explore different cultures, languages, lifestyles, music, traditions, and beliefs and treat people equally regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, race, or age.
Leading by example, we can make a better path for the next generation and with that, generations to come!
Professor of sexual violence law