By Michael Collins
It probably will shock many that uber-progressive Maryland is one of a handful of states in which rapists have parental rights over children born as a result of their crime.
It probably will shock them even more to know that, for the ninth time, a bill to deny parental rights to rapists (in this case, HB428, the Child Conceived Without Consent – Termination of Parental Rights [Rape Survivor Family Protection Act]), died in the legislature on its final day.
Advocates of the proposed law want to strip parental rights from not only those convicted of rape, but those accused as well. For many, the prospect that a man could lose his parental rights without conviction violates the very notion of due process.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, said, “In the case where there’s someone convicted of rape, that’s certainly no problem with anybody. This bill does not require conviction.” Vallario continued that, “We’re trying to make sure that if we’re going to take some child away from the parent that he’s given all the safeguards.”
Still others have fretted about the potential for abuse of the law. Could a woman claim spousal rape during a nasty divorce? Could a woman who had sex and conceived a child after sharing a bottle of wine with her boyfriend later lodge a rape allegation against him for diminished capacity due to alcohol?
The bill’s sponsors worked hard to allay those concerns. First, the bill targets perpetrators of rape in the first degree — force or threat of force with aggravating circumstances — rape in the second degree — force or threat of force without aggravating circumstances — and incest. Also, it excluded married couples.
Alleged rapists would not lose parental rights due to an accusation alone. A petitioner seeking to terminate parental rights of an alleged rapist would have to provide clear and convincing evidence of rape to a judge in a civil trial. The judge would also have to rule that it was in the best interest of the child.
Provisions were made for legal counsel for the alleged rapist, as well as a prohibition for statements made in the civil case to be used against him in any criminal case.
Proponents noted that this bill would affect only a handful of cases per year.
The Senate’s companion bill, SB 574, was significantly weaker. It would have removed incest as a reason to deny parental rights of a rapist and diminished the protections against having the victim and child publicly identified. It also would have shortened the proposed statute of limitations from seven years to three.
Oddly, the Senate’s conference committee members were not named until the Friday before Sine Die, which was a short workday. Odder still was that no women were on such a significant conference committee. The Senate was not in session on Saturday, and the entire legislature was off on Sunday. Thus, this important bill did not go to conference until the last day of session.
Despite what appeared to be poison pill amendments in the Senate’s version, the conference was able to make progress. Unfortunately, the Senate did not read conference reports until after 10 p.m.—less than two hours before adjournment. It was not enough time to print and read the conference bill.
While frustrated at the handling of the conference committee, some of its advocates believe that no bill is better than the relatively weak Senate bill. And a few Republicans have enjoyed the schadenfreude of the Democrats’ “war on women.”
Who’s to blame? Well, Del. Vallario, who never was a fan of the bill, has been criticized for slow walking it, and Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, has been accused of mismanaging the conference committee.
But let’s not forget that Senate President Mike Miller is master of the Senate. Nothing moves without his say-so. Some now whisper that Miller delayed—and thus killed—the bill in retribution for the House failing to move on his pet bills.
For his part, Miller blames the House for talking the bill to death and has cynically — does he know any other way? — tried to use it as leverage for a special session to address medical marijuana licensing. At the same time, however, he has declared he will only accept the watered-down Senate version without amendment.
So, for another year at least, in Maryland, the perpetrator of a forcible rape or incest will continue to have parental rights of any child conceived through his crime.
I am hopeful, however, that the legislation will be re-introduced and, this time around, receive the respect that it deserves from the House and the Senate.
Michael Collins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org