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Rape Survivors Seek Custody Bills

Concord — A rape survivor shared her story of conceiving a child and fighting to keep her rapist from earning custody with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, urging them to support a bill that would help other women avoid a similar ordeal.

“I couldn’t imagine anything worse than co-parenting with my attacker,” Shauna Prewitt, a rape survivor and national expert on legislation surrounding parental rights, told the committee.

Prewitt choked up at one point as she testified on the bill by Sen. Bette Lasky, D-Nashua, that would give victims of rape more avenues for terminating the parental rights of their attackers even if the attacker is not criminally convicted of sexual assault. Studies estimate between 25,000 and 30,000 woman are impregnated during rape each year, speakers said, and a 2006 New Hampshire study showed roughly 3 percent of rapists were convicted or pleaded guilty.

Tuesday’s testimony came as Vermont lawmakers are set to vote on a similar bill this week.

Lasky’s bill would add a provision to the law that allows women to go before a judge for a fact-finding hearing after which the judge could deny parental rights if he or she finds by clear and convincing evidence that the child was conceived through rape. The bill also changes language in existing law to say parental rights “shall” be terminated in the case of a sexual assault conviction instead of “may.”

In addition to Prewitt’s emotional testimony, the committee heard from the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Ending the Violence, NARAL Pro-Choice and Cornerstone Policy Research, which is consistently on the opposition side of NARAL on issues. Only the American Civil Liberties Union testified in opposition to the bill, saying some of the language was too strict.

Prewitt, now a lawyer in Chicago, told the committee she decided to keep her child after she was raped at age 22 because she was amazed that her body could nurture life when she felt so dead and lost inside. But when her attacker sought parental rights, she was shocked to learn she had no recourse to keep him out of the child’s life. He agreed to stop seeking custody only after she told him she would stop seeking a conviction.

“My daughter is safe but I was denied justice,” she said. “I’m here today to tell you that it’s really important this legislation be passed; it’s really important that women like me (aren’t) forced to make a difficult decision.”

She’s been championing similar legislation around the country and said eight states have passed bills similar to Lasky’s within the past two years.

Scott Hampton, director of Ending the Violence, said a judge wouldn’t ask a stalker or attacker to be part of a victim’s rehabilitation.

But, he said, “that’s what happens when parental involvement is granted to a rapist who has created a child.”

He called rapists “violent inseminators” and told the committee that just because someone helps conceive a child doesn’t mean they are a parent. Furthermore, when a man attacks a woman, he is making it clear that he has no desire to support her, which is key to a healthy relationship between parents.

“(Rapists are) making it crystal clear that being a legitimate parent is not their priority, it’s not their agenda,” Hampton said.

Cornerstone supports the legislation because it is a bill that strengthens families. The justice system punishes criminals but too often forgets victims, and this bill would help victims protect themselves and their families, said Executive Director Bryan McCormack.

The ACLU’s prime concern with the legislation was that it didn’t specifically say that rights would be terminated only if it’s in the best interest of the child.

In response, Prewitt told the committee that by New Hampshire law, judges go through a two-step process when determining whether to terminate parental rights. First, the judge needs to find a statutory basis. (The bill would add rape as a basis alongside such existing ones as child abuse.)

The second step is determining whether, even given that basis, terminating parental involvement is in the best interests of the child. In certain statutory rape cases, for example, judges have ruled the father can still see the child, Prewitt said.

The bill will go to the full Senate once the judiciary committee makes a recommendation.

Tuesday the committee also voted unanimously in favor of a bill to make domestic violence a crime. The bill, dubbed “Joshua’s Law” in honor of Joshua Savyon who was killed by his father at a Manchester YWCA last year, drew a large crowd for an emotional hearing several weeks ago.

Vermont is also considering giving victims of sexual assault the right to petition for permanent sole custody. The bill as introduced does not require a conviction for the petition to be granted and would give courts some discretion.

Judiciary Vice Chairwoman Maxine Grad of Moretown expects the legislation to pass the House.

“It’s a very, very important tool for a victim to have,” Grad said Tuesday.

Sarah Kenney of Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said her organization has been working with legislators on the issue since 2007.

As an example of what mothers face, Kenney pointed to a 2005 case where convicted rapist Robert LeClair attempted to gain partial custody of a child he fathered with a woman when she was 15, younger than the legal age for consent. The Supreme Court sent the case back to family court in 2007 for further deliberation.

The House considers Vermont’s bill Friday.

T he Associated Press contributed to this report.