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Bill would restrict custody rights of convicted child sex-abusers

ANNAPOLIS – Several Maryland legislators are pushing for stricter limits on custody and visitation rights for parents convicted of sex crimes.

Last week, the Judicial Proceedings Committee heard a bill from Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Caroline, which would prevent courts from awarding custody and visitation to a parent guilty of sexual abuse of a minor, unless there is “good cause” to award custody.

Colburn’s bill was cross-filed with legislation by Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-Talbot, who learned of two cases where a parent convicted of sexually abusing a minor either won custody of their child, or could get it.

In one of the cases, the man found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor has now sexually abused his son, Haddaway-Riccio said.

“We need to make a higher standard for child custody,” Haddaway-Riccio said at Thursday’s hearing.

The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault supported Colburn and Haddaway-Riccio’s bills in written testimony, but requested an amendment that would clearly define “good cause.”

Barbara Mattison, an Annapolis woman who has been a victim of mental and physical abuse, spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of her mother, who was sexually abused as a child.

“She did not get this protection,” Mattison said.

The Office of the Public Defender opposed the bill, saying existing laws already protect children from abuse and neglect.

Under current law, the guiding principal in custody decisions is the best interest of the child. In making that determination, courts are required to consider evidence of abuse between parents or spouses, abuse of any other child living in the household. In the event of past abuse, the court must determine that there is no likelihood of a recurrence.

“We believe the current law not only protects children from a broader range of harm (than the bill), but does so pursuant to laws and proceedings that embody appropriate standards and steps,” read the office’s written testimony.

Bret Larrimore of Easton, who was sexually abused when he was 11, is also opposed to the legislation.

He was convicted of sexual abuse of a minor in 2009, has attended classes and therapy, and is now married with a 2-year-old son.

“I know the effects and what it can cause and where it can take you,” Larrimore said.

The bill would only cover cases of sexual abuse of a minor if the conviction occurred after Oct. 1, 2013, and so would not affect him personally, but he knows of other men who have turned their lives around.

“These men are good fathers. They’re good men. They don’t want to go back where they were. They don’t want to be those men anymore,” Larrimore said.

The U.S. Supreme Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals have recognized parents have a fundamental right to govern the care, custody and control of their children, unless the parent is found unfit, or under exceptional circumstances. Courts have only denied visitation in exceptional circumstances, according to a fiscal note accompanying the bill. In a 1985 case, Arnold v. Naughton, the Court of Special Appeals held that noncustodial parents didn’t necessarily lose supervised visitation rights if they were guilty of sexually abusing the child.

Haddaway-Riccio’s version of the bill was heard by the House Judiciary Committee Jan. 17, with no opposing testimony, but nothing has come of it, so far. Haddaway-Riccio said this may be due to the committee dealing with high-profile issues like gun control and the death penalty.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, also had a bill regarding custody and visitation heard by the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Raskin’s bill would deny male rapists of their parental rights if a child resulted from the violent act, but courts could still impose child support orders. There are 30 senators and 77 delegates supporting his bill.