Each year, thousands of women become pregnant as a result of sexual assault.
Shockingly, too often these rape survivors must endure further trauma when the rapist seeks custody or visitation with the survivor's child.
On behalf of those survivors and their children, U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Tom Marino (R-PA), Patrick Meehan (R-PA), David Joyce (R-OH), Gwen Moore (D-WI), and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) filed the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act.
This bipartisan legislation encourages states to pass laws that allow women to petition for the termination of parental rights based on clear and convincing evidence that a child was conceived through rape. The bill would provide incentives to states with protective statutes through a grant program that provides additional federal funding through two programs authorized in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) -- the STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grant and the Sexual Assault Services Program.
Only six states currently have laws that afford women comprehensive access to the legal options they need in order to avoid custody battles with their rapists. That's why members of Congress have introduced federal legislation in an effort to encourage other states to follow suit.
Earlier this year in May, a real-life example of the need for this kind of legislation was in the national news - the Cleveland kidnapping-rape case where a man is charged with kidnapping and raping three women for over a decade. One of the women had a child while imprisoned, and just two months after the mother escaped, the accused perpetrator requested visitation with the daughter who was conceived through rape.
On Thursday, July 25, Reps. Wasserman Schultz, Marino, Meehan and Moore hosted a news conference to talk about why this bill is so important and what it would do to help women. Joining them Thursday was Shauna Prewitt, who became pregnant after she was raped as a student at the University of Chicago. She was shocked when her attacker sought custody of the baby. Since then, she has earned a law degree and become an outspoken advocate for providing survivors the legal tools they need to protect themselves and their children.
"No mother, and especially no survivor, should ever have to endure such a nightmare," said Rep. Wasserman Schultz. "While we cannot undo the harm already caused, we can give women the legal tools they need in order to protect themselves from additional abuse, coercion, manipulation, and intimidation. Stories like Shauna's remind us why bills like this rise above partisan politics. This is about doing what's right to protect women across America, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to get this bill passed."
"I'm a former prosecutor. I've defended rape victims and I've put their attackers behind bars," said Rep. Meehan. "Amazingly, in some states rapists have parental rights to their child. Victims then must relive their experiences in prolonged custody disputes, and they're forced to interact with their attackers on a regular basis to arrange visitation. This isn't just painful for the victim -- it's unsafe for the child, as well. Federal policy can and should encourage states to protect rape victims and their children."
"I was proud to stand with my colleagues and support the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act," said Rep. Moore. "After experiencing the emotional and physical trauma of sexual assault, victims should never have to fight for custodial and parental rights with their abusers. I am proud that Wisconsin is one of six states to currently help women avoid horrific custody battles with their attackers if there is clear and convincing evidence of rape. However, this survivor support must be extended nationwide. I urge my colleagues to stand up for mothers and support this commonsense legislation."
"The case of Amanda Berry giving birth while being held captive and raped for over a decade occurred in my district but the need for this legislation goes beyond one case," said Rep. Fudge. "I am determined to do whatever I can to ensure that rape survivors throughout Ohio and in every other state are not further traumatized by the justice system. This sensible, bipartisan measure encourages all states to develop strong remedies to help mothers avoid painful custody battles with their rapists. They and their children deserve that protection."
The bill has growing support from national organizations, including the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, National Taskforce to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, National Network to End Domestic Violence, National Domestic Violence/Dating Violence Hotline, National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, National Council of Jewish Women, National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Violence, Jewish Women International, Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, Casa de Esperanza, Victims Rights Law Center.