A bill aims to ban rapists from claiming parental rights of a child born out of sexual assault. Under current Vermont law, that's not necessarily the case.
While the law and support of the measure seems straightforward, those who debated the issue say it does present tough questions. But committee members say they believe they've crafted a bill that protects victims without creating risk of false claims.
Under current Vermont law, any parent of a child can file for custody given there's no safety risk to those involved. But legislators worry about what's happened in other states. Some rape suspects have coerced victims into making trades, offering to drop custody claims if the victim agrees not to testify. It's unclear how big or if that's been an issue in Vermont.
"Vermont is typically at the forefront of victim's rights policies and this is an area where we are behind the curve, 19 other states have beat us to it and I think it's a bill whose time has come," said Rep. Michelle Fay, D-St. Johnsbury.
A measure currently under consideration before the House Judiciary Committee would give judges the right to grant sole parental rights to a sexual assault victim. If granted, the finding would not prevent the victim from receiving child support from the perpetrator.
"Give victims back the power and the control that they lost by being victimized," said Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown.
"I am concerned that it can be abused in the cases of marital sexual assault," said Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre.
Some in committee voiced concern that false accusations could arise as a ruse to gain sole custody of a child long after a settled divorce agreement. Divisions among lawmakers on that element did not break along typical lines.
"The victims of marital sexual assault already have legal barriers to getting free and achieving justice, and so adding additional-- even a small hoop for them to jump through-- seems unreasonable to me," Fay said.
"I guess I'm dissenting from people I don't normally dissent from and concurring with Rep. Koch on this one," said Rep. Richard Marek, D-Newfane.
But those lawmakers with concerns say the rest of the bill is still strong enough to earn their support.
Following a unanimous "yea" vote, the measure will be presented to the full House.
"Really comes out clearly that the bill I think we have before us is protecting the woman but also allowing the man a certain amount of rights," said Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Irasburg.
Committee members who crafted the bill say the support structure it would create may expose a problem in Vermont we didn't know we had.
The New Hampshire Legislature tackled a similar bill Tuesday. Lawmakers there heard from a woman who says her attacker coerced her into not testifying against him, in exchange for his promise not to wage a custody battle for the child she decided to keep.
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