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The Intersection of Rape, Custody and Reproductive Coercion

By Barry Goldstein

Thirty-one states permit rapists to use family courts to gain access to their victim and obtain custody or visitation of a child conceived from rape. The situation is outrageous, but it doesn’t even describe the full failure of states to protect rape victims and their children. Even in states that provide some protections, a conviction is necessary to shield survivors from their rapists. Crimes of rape have very low conviction rates so that few of the 32,000 women impregnated by rapists have the ability to protect their child or themselves from eighteen years of contact with the assailant.

The public that is unfamiliar with the widespread failures of the custody courts in abuse cases might assume that even if it is theoretically possible for a rapist to gain custody or unsupervised visitation might assume the courts would generally protect children conceived by rape. The custody courts have a strong bias to keep even very flawed fathers in their children’s lives and routinely disbelieve allegations of abuse and especially sexual abuse. The recent Saunders’ study from the U. S. Department of Justice found that most evaluators, judges and lawyers do not have the specific training needed to respond effectively to domestic violence cases. Professionals without this training tend to focus on the myth that women frequently make false allegations. Accordingly a rape victim is at great risk to lose custody and may have to share parenting with her rapist in order to maintain a relationship with her child.

Other forms of reproductive coercion may be more subtle as they would almost have to be. Abusive men believe they have the right to control their partners and make the decisions in the relationship. They may refuse to use condoms or other protection or lie about it in order to impregnate their partner. This makes it harder for domestic violence victims to leave because they have additional obligations and inadequate resources. Even if they try to leave the abusers can use the broken custody court system to gain access the his victim and child.



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