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Many States Grant Convicted Rapists Custody Rights; Not Missouri and Arkansas, Due to New Laws

When a child is conceived as a result of rape, the biological father is no longer allowed custody rights in Arkansas, and Missouri's laws are even more restrictive
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, estimates that 32,000 pregnancies occur as a result of rape each year in the US. (Photo credit: pfly via Flickr)

In many states, convicted rapists are given custody rights to the children born as a result of that rape—despite their conviction in court, and despite the mother’s objections.  But that’s no longer the case in Missouri, and due to recent legislation in Arkansas, it won’t be the case there anymore, either. KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson has details.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 32,000 pregnancies occur each year in the United States as a result of rape. And many rape victims decide to go through with the pregnancy, as opposed to getting an abortion.

But in about 30 states, the convicted rapist, who is the biological father, can request – and be granted –some parental rights, like visits and shared legal custody.

That’s not the case in Missouri. What’s more, Missouri passed a law last year (Section 452.374, RSMo; Senate Bill 628)  that prevents alleged rapists from filing a paternity or custody case in civil court while the criminal rape case is ongoing.

Zac Wilson, a spokesman for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, says that’s significant in the courtroom.

“So then, that way, someone couldn’t use claiming paternity as a defense against a rape, by saying it was a consensual act.  [For example, saying,] ‘Of course it’s consensual because I’m trying to claim paternity rights,” Wilson said.

In other words, he says it was a tactic that some alleged rapists used to try to get a “not guilty” verdict in criminal court, thinking that a judge would find it hard to convict a man of rape when he’s interested in raising the child. Now, alleged rapists have to wait until all criminal trials are over, including appeals, before requesting paternity or custody rights—and they can only do that if they’re acquitted.

Missouri State Representative Jay Barnes sponsored the legislation in 2012.

 “I was contacted by someone. And when I was first contacted, I didn’t think it would be a very prevalent thing. I sponsored the bill.  And after I sponsored the bill, we started hearing more and more stories,” Barnes said.

Barnes, too, said some alleged criminals were trying to leverage the civil justice system to try to get out of criminal charges. He said in some cases, rape victims were being threatened with a lifetime of shared custody if the victims testified against their alleged rapists.

Until this year, Arkansas decided custody rights of convicted rapists on a case-by-case basis.  But no more, says Helen Brown, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“In this past legislative session, in 2013, we had legislation passed that terminated the parental rights of a convicted rapist to a child who was conceived through rape,” Brown said.

Back at the Missouri Coalition for Domestic and Sexual Violence, Zac Wilson says before the Missouri law was enacted, survivors of rape sometimes had to deal with custody battles and criminal cases  simultaneously.

And, he said, this law came about, in part, due to a specific case in the Ozarks.

 “There was a very specific case where grandparents were getting involved, because they actually had an underage child who ended up giving birth due to rape.  And there were paternity proceedings that were going forward in the Fort Leonard Wood area,” Wilson said.

Wilson says that case was tried in a military court in Virginia, and that the alleged rapist was acquitted.

That father, Wilson says, now has visitation rights with that child.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.