A state high court affirmed a judgment of paternity in a statutory rape case, rejecting the mother's argument that the lower court had "no authority" to adjudicate the parental rights of a father whose child was conceived by statutory rape. H.T. v. J.M. According to the Appeals Court of Massachusetts, terminating the father's parental rights "would unfairly disadvantage the child by depriving her of the right to receive financial support from both parents." ABA Section of Litigation leaders believe the decision is contrary to a majority of other state laws or decisions and opens the door to continuous harassment of rape victims by their rapists.
Statutory Rape Victim Seeks to Limit Father's Parental Rights
The mother was 14 years old and the father was 19 years old when they engaged in sexual intercourse resulting in the birth of a child. The father pled guilty to four counts of statutory rape in Superior Court (criminal court). The criminal court sentenced him to 16 years of probation conditioned on his agreement to acknowledge paternity and abide by any orders issued by the Probate and Family Court (family court) regarding child support.
The father acknowledged paternity, and the family court issued a temporary order to pay child support. The father then requested visitation rights with the child. In response, the mother filed a motion in the criminal court to revise the father's conditions of probation, claiming the possibility of additional proceedings bound her to an ongoing relationship with the father.
The criminal court denied the mother's motion on the ground that she lacked standing to challenge the father's sentence. The Supreme Judicial Court similarly rejected the mother's appeal because "the victim of a criminal offense has no judicially cognizable interest in the proceedings and lacks standing to challenge the sentence."
The mother then filed a motion in the family court seeking to terminate the father's parental rights. The court denied the mother's motion. It also denied the father's request for "visitation or parenting time rights," finding the father's stated desire for visitation insincere and asserted solely as a "bargaining chip" to reduce or eliminate his child support obligation. As such, it ordered the father to pay $110 in weekly child support.
Appeals Court Rejects Mother's Challenge to Father's Paternity
The mother appealed the family court's ruling, arguing that the family court had "no authority" under Mass. Gen. Laws c. 209C, the statute governing proceedings involving children born out of wedlock, to adjudicate the parental rights of a father who conceived a child by statutory rape. The Massachusetts Court of Appeals disagreed and affirmed the family court judgment.
In so holding, the appeals court emphasized that the family court has jurisdiction to carry out the primary purpose of Chapter 209C, which is to collect and enforce child support. It observed that the plain language of Chapter 209C applies to "any" child born out of wedlock, and thus is not limited to children born as a result of lawful intercourse.
The appeals court also observed the statute does not expressly exclude a father convicted of statutory rape from bringing a paternity action and allows a mother who is a minor to seek to establish paternity. The appeals court further relied on a 2014 amendment to Chapter 209C that gave the family court the power to order visitation rights for a parent convicted of statutory rape in specific circumstances.
Citing established precedent that a parent may not waive a child's right to support from the other parent, the appeals court concluded that reversing the family court's ruling would deprive the child of her right to financial support from both parents, as well as result in more favorable treatment for this father than other biological fathers.
Section Leaders Recognize Negative Consequences for Rape Victims
Section leaders believe this case is highly unusual because it confirms the parental rights of statutory rapists and opens the door to harassment of a victim by allowing statutory rapist to seek visitation. "This case is extremely out of the ordinary," notes Rita M. Aquilio, Bridgewater, NJ, cochair of the Section of Litigation's Family Law Litigation Committee. "Most states allow for the termination of or limitation on the parental rights when a child is conceived as a result of rape or sexual assault," she adds.
"The decision implicates the victim's due process rights because it risks infringing upon a mother's fundamental right to parent her child," concludes Dolly Hernandez, Miami, FL, cochair of the Section's Family Law Litigation Committee. "If forced to litigate the visitation rights of a statutory rapist who is the biological father of a victim's child, the victim may face certain preclusions on her activity. For example, she may be limited in her ability to leave the state or the country," adds Aquilio. "A decision like this might even preclude a woman from having a child in order to avoid a continued relationship with her rapist," says Hernandez.
Erin Louise Palmer is an associate editor for Litigation News.
Keywords: statutory rape, parental rights, visitation
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