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Child custody rights for rapists? Most states have them

By Ed Payne and Ted Rowlands, CNN
updated 7:50 AM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rapists have parental rights in 31 states
  • Study: About 32,000 pregnancies result from rape each year
  • The Rape Survivor Custody Act would encourage states to strip parental rights from rapists

(CNN) -- When an Ohio judge denied a request for Cleveland kidnapping suspect Ariel Castro to visit the 6-year-old girl he fathered with one of the women he kidnapped and raped, the reason seemed pretty clear cut.

"I just think that would be inappropriate," Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Russo said last month.

The idea that Castro -- who will be sentenced Thursday after pleading guilty to 937 counts -- would have any parental rights is hard to believe. But in 31 states, rapists do enjoy the rights of a father.

Ohio currently has no laws that would take away Castro's parental rights for fathering the child with Amanda Berry, who he abducted in 2003 when she was a teenager.

Surviving rape

"I was astonished," said Shauna Prewitt, who was raped when she was a senior in college.

Her daughter was six months old when she found out that the man who raped her wanted partial custody.

"How could I possibly entrust my beautiful ... baby to him," she wondered, "but beyond that I didn't know how to spend the next 18 or more years of my life tethered to my attacker."

Opinion: Raped, pregnant and ordeal not over

Legislation introduced

Prewitt, who was raped at the age of 21, is now a custody rights attorney, and is working to enact new federal guidelines that would push states to pass laws to strip rapists of their parental rights to children they fathered through rape.

Legislation introduced last week -- the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act -- would do just that.

The bill would provide incentives for legal initiatives on the state level to help women secure full custody of children conceived through rape.

"Without such a law, woman can endure years of being tormented by an abuser," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida.

Political Ticker: Citing Castro, new bill would strip rapists of custody rights

Pregnancies from rape

Each year, there are approximately 32,000 pregnancies resulting from rape, according to a 1996 study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

While the majority of those pregnancies were terminated, as many as a third of the women give birth.

Prewitt kept her daughter, in part, because being pregnant helped her get through the pain of being raped.

"Just not feeling so alone, not feeling so dead inside, because I had this life growing inside me and it was a comfort to me," she said.

How to prevent rape

Not clear cut

But critics say, most cases aren't so clear cut.

They also argue that judges currently have enough power to prevent unfit fathers from seeing their children.

"There are lots of solutions that are short of this (bill) and I think a lot of time when things come in this top-down fashion, based on one or two truly tragic stories, we end up making bad law," said attorney Aviva Orenstein.

Prewitt said there are other women like her, who had no idea when they decided to keep their children that their attackers had parental rights.

"If we knew that this possibility loomed on the horizon, that we could spend the rest of lives tethered to our attackers because of our decision to have our children, would we have made the same choice?" Prewitt said, pausing a moment to think.

"I think that's hard to answer."

Sister: Ariel Castro will present 'other side' at sentencing hearing

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