If a woman in this state has a child as a result of sexual assault, her rapist can sue for parental rights.
That could change if companion measures in the state House and Senate pass, but both bills have stalled this session — mostly over arguments about whether a criminal conviction should be required to take away a rapist’s rights and about how the state would collect child support.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 6364.
“There’s always next year,” she said.
Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, is sponsoring House Bill 2559.
Under the bills, a criminal conviction would not be required to prove a sexual assault occurred. Instead, the bills would call for “clear, cogent and convincing” evidence, the highest standard of proof in civil court.
Critics say the bill leaves room for abuse of the legal system in domestic disputes. Supporters say rape convictions are rare.
Mary Ellen Stone is the executive director of King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, which helps about 1,500 sexual-assault victims each year.
In some of those cases, offenders have petitioned for parental rights to children conceived through rape. It’s more common, though, “for victims, when they realize they are pregnant, to try to keep it low-key and not report the rape so the offender doesn’t find out,” she said.
Between 25,000 and 32,000 pregnancies result from sexual assault in the U.S. each year, the bills say.
Stone said the “clear, cogent and convincing” standard gives victims an easier way to protect themselves and their children than would a requirement for a criminal conviction.
“It’s very hard to get a conviction, and even if you do, cases take years, so the child could already be a toddler,” she said. Court battles tether a victim to a rapist, causing traumatic emotional distress. Both bills seek to shorten the duration of this interaction.
Under current state law, a court can allow a victim to place a child for adoption without the rapist’s consent if there has been a conviction. The parental rights transfer to the adoptive parents.
The Department of Social and Health Services is mostly concerned with how the bill would affect child support if the mother receives state assistance, said David Stillman, the department’s assistant secretary for economic services.
DSHS helps low-income families with living expenses and medical bills through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Parents who accept state assistance need to identify the other parent and cannot refuse child support from that parent.
The state does offer some exemptions from this requirement in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault, but Stillman said victims remain reluctant to seek the exemption because it would require them to reveal the rape.
The bills would allow victims to refuse child support.