ANNAPOLIS – Perennially introduced but annually ill-fated legislation to enable courts to strip parental rights from a mother or father who conceived the child through non-consensual intercourse received an unusually early hearing this General Assembly session and with broad support – giving sponsors hope that this could be the year it finally becomes law.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee took up the proposed Rape Survivor Family Protection Act on Thursday, the 2018 session’s first full day. The measure, Senate Bill 2, has failed for about a decade but this year it has the full-throated support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats, and Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.
In the past, opponents expressed concern the measure would violate the due-process rights of the accused parents, who the bill’s foes said could have lost their parental rights without having been convicted, let alone charged with a sexual offense.
To assuage those concerns, the 2018 bill would enable judges to terminate the parental rights of a parent convicted of rape or who is shown by clear and convincing evidence to have conceived the child through non-consensual intercourse. The law would not apply, in the absence of a rape conviction, to couples married at the time of conception – unless the parents were separated in accordance with a protective order at the time of the assault-based conception and have lived apart since that time.
The judge would also have to find that termination of parental rights would be in the child’s best interests.
Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, who has voiced due-process concerns but supported the bill in past years, said this year’s measure should be enacted. To address his concerns, Zirkin said he has met in recent months with Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and a perennial lead sponsor of the bill.
“No one believes or has ever believed that rapists should have paternity rights,” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said after the hearing. “The complexities of this bill have been due to the fact that individuals need not have been charged or convicted of rape to be deemed a rapist and so the court proceedings are complicated. But again I believe that these complex issues have been worked out thanks to many people, most especially Delegate Dumais.”
Dumais, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, praised Zirkin at the hearing, saying the bill has “strong due-process protections.”
Sen. Michael J. Hough, a Judicial Proceedings Committee member, wondered aloud why it would ever be in a child’s best interest for a rapist to retain parental rights. He told sponsors and advocates of the bill that such judicial discretion should be struck from the legislation.
“I have a major problem with having that in there,” said Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll. “It’s never in the best interest of the child to be associated with that person.”
Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told the committee that the child’s best interest is always a consideration of judges in family-law cases but said a judge would rarely – if ever – preserve the parental rights of a rapist.
Jordan, who has lobbied for the bill for years, said parental rights might be preserved in “the sort of very extreme case,” such as if the accused parent is wealthy and can provide necessary financial support. Stripping a parent of their rights would also remove any obligation to provide child support, Jordan said.
“You want to always have a court consider the best interests of the child,” Jordan added.
She said the bill has been tweaked to the point that all due-process concerns have been adequately addressed.
“It is past time to pass this bill,” Jordan added. “We need a law to help survivors (of rape).”
The Judicial Proceedings Committee could vote on the bill as early as next Thursday, the same day the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to have a hearing on the cross-filed measure, House Bill 1.