Women who become pregnant in Maryland as a result of sexual assault can now sue to terminate the parental rights of their attackers, under a law approved this month in the legislature after nine failed attempts.
“This is an important day for the state of Maryland,” said Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who signed the emergency bill Tuesday surrounded by a host of advocates and female lawmakers and with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) by his side. “I know it’s a long time coming.”
Only five other states had no laws on the books regarding parental rights and sexual assault, said Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
In past years, the bill failed in Annapolis mainly because of a protracted debate over men’s rights, the appropriate burden of proof and whether men whose parental rights are terminated should still be required to pay child support. Miller said Tuesday that those issues still concern him, and that he hopes to see future legislation that would require child support from assailants.
The law, which takes effect immediately, is “a big first step and we’ll move forward until we get this thing right,” Miller said. “We’re going to have to come back and deal with this issue year after year to undo some of the wrong.”
The burden of proof issue centered on whether men should have their rights terminated only when they are proved to have committed assault “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard used in criminal court.
Some lawmakers, including Miller, initially embraced that position. Others successfully pushed for the threshold used in civil court, “clear and convincing evidence,” which is the standard used to terminate parental rights in child-abuse cases.
Maryland is the 25th state to use the “clear and convincing evidence” standard, Jordan said, joining Florida, Georgia and Illinois, among others, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Louisiana, Missouri and Nebraska are among the states that require a criminal conviction.
“It’s so important,” said Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery), the lead sponsor of the legislation. “Women that find themselves in the position of being pregnant after a rape need to be able to have their voice heard and to protect their children.”
Mary E. Shine, a Montgomery County social worker who has pushed for the bill for years, was moved to tears after watching Hogan sign it.
Shine contacted her state delegate in 2006 after becoming involved in a case in which a 12-year-old girl was raped and impregnated by her stepfather. Years after the baby was born, a judge ruled that the stepfather had the right to weigh in on decisions involving the child, and that his rights could not be terminated under state law.
“It’s been a really long battle; it just seemed like it didn’t have to be a battle,” Shine said.
Jordan said her organization will go to court Wednesday to file a termination request on behalf of a 16-year-old who was raped.
“For her, this means a tremendous amount, to go to court and fight,” Jordan said. “It’s a change in the way Maryland is treating women and allegations of rape. It says we respect you enough to allow you to go to court and prove your case.”
The rights-termination bill died in the final hours of Maryland’s 90-day General Assembly session last year after an all-male panel of lawmakers failed to reach a compromise on different versions of the legislation passed by the state Senate and the House of Delegates.
The lack of action caused a backlash, and Miller and Busch vowed to make the legislation a priority this session. Hogan promised to sign it.