For a woman who gives birth to a child conceived out of rape, the idea of having to give child custody or visitation rights to her attacker might seem unthinkable. But in some parts of the U.S., that’s exactly what can happen.
The laws surrounding paternal rights for rapists vary widely across the United States. In a handful of states, there are no laws in place addressing this issue at all. On the other end of the spectrum, several states have passed laws that allow a rape victim to unequivocally block her alleged assailant from all parental rights. That leaves the rest of the country somewhere in the middle.
Washington is among these “middle-ground” states. In 2017, the state passed legislation that expands sexual assault survivors’ scope to prevent their attacker from gaining parental rights. Under the law, a sexual assault survivor can petition the court to terminate parental rights of the perpetrator if she gave birth to a child within 320 days of the attack, and either of the following is true:
- The attacker pled guilty or was convicted of sexual assault.
- The survivor provided clear and convincing evidence of sexual assault.
This second option provides added protections for sexual assault survivors who choose to carry their pregnancy to term. Only about one-third of sexual assault survivors report the rape to the police and file criminal charges against their assailant. This can greatly limit many survivors’ power to terminate parental rights in states where conviction is a prerequisite.
Other key points
In addition, the law makes the following stipulations:
- Time limit to file: In order to terminate a rapist’s parental rights, the survivor must file a petition with the court no later than four years after the birth of their child.
- No age exemption: This law applies to both adult and minor survivors of sexual assault.
- Child support: Even if parental rights are terminated, a court can still require the perpetrator to pay child support, birth-related costs or both. The survivor has the option to decline such payments, however.
Enduring a sexual assault is traumatic. This law gives sexual assault survivors more power – and a way out of being forced to co-parent with their attacker.