Emily* wasn't interested in a relationship. As a college student in the South, she was focused on her education, but when she met David* while working part-time at a local store, he seemed like he needed a friend. He was a loner, seldom socializing with other employees. "I felt sorry for him, so I invited him out with my friends," she says.
As they got to know each other, David painted a picture of himself as an everyman: He had been a Boy Scout, helped his church and seemed like a good listener. School, not dating, remained Emily's priority, but David took an interest in her and started using phrases like "soul mates." Soon he began encouraging her to make things boyfriend-girlfriend official. "I thought, maybe he's right," she says. "He was one of the nicest guys I'd ever met, so I agreed to start dating him."
From there, things progressed rapidly. After a few months of dating, they were engaged and living together in a small apartment. Around this time, Emily started noticing sudden shifts in David's behavior: small, non-violent "temper tantrums" when something didn't go his way.
One night while the couple slept, David sat upright and started screaming at Emily, saying she didn't love him. She tried to reassure him, but he only became more physically upset. Eventually, he ran to the bathroom and started slamming the toilet seat on his head. When Emily tried to stop him, David screamed, "Do you want me to kill myself? Is that what you want?"
"Of course, I don't want you to do this," Emily remembers saying. "Please stop. I love you."
This went on for hours. Emily was laying on the floor, shaking and in tears, when David raped her, she says. (He later denied this in court.) Emily felt trapped. David had threatened to kill himself if she ever left him, so she stayed, thinking it was better to suffer in silence.
Then, just a few months shy of their wedding date, Emily found out she was pregnant. She'd taken a home pregnancy test, which turned up positive. A second test at a health clinic confirmed that she was having David's baby.
"That was the worst day of my life," says Emily. She felt hopeless and depressed, seeing no easy way out.
After their son was born, David lost his job and Emily eventually had to drop out of school. The couple tried to make ends meet for a few years, but were barely able to pay their bills, so they, along with their young son, moved in with Emily's mother. One night, Emily's mom found the journal she kept on her computer and was horrified by the details: that her son-in-law had been physically assaulting her throughout their marriage. Afterward, she kicked David out of her home.
With the help of a legal aid clinic, Emily filed several temporary restraining orders against David. That distance finally helped her re-gain much of the self-esteem that she'd lost over the years. She was also granted an emergency relocation, where she found work as a receptionist and took care of her son. But eventually, those temporary restraining orders expired. When Emily filed for a permanent one, the judge denied it and ordered her to return to her hometown, where she knew she'd face a custody battle.
So she made a desperate choice and fled the country.
CHANGING THE LAWS
Emily's story is as upsetting as the Constitution is clear. Under the 14th amendment, all biological mothers and fathers have a fundamental right to parent their children — even if those children fall within the 17,000 to 32,000 rape-related pregnancies in the U.S. every year, according to the . While official statistics aren't tracked, found that about 37% of impregnated rape victims choose to carry, putting tens of thousands of women at risk of a traumatic legal battle if their assailant exercises his or her parental rights. (And, of course, things don't get any easier if you and your attacker are still married.)
In 2017, 20 states and D.C. require a conviction of rape in criminal court to terminate one's parental rights in civil court. Seven states — Alabama, New Mexico, North Dakota, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi and Wyoming — have no laws in place to protect rape victims in custody battles at all. Florida was included on that list up until 2013, when Analyn Megison got involved.
After going through her own traumatic court battle with her alleged attacker, Megison was inspired to draft a new state bill, which held that any person who was found to have conceived a child through "clear and convincing evidence" of rape would have his or her parental rights terminated by the state.
As a lawyer who'd worked in public policy for years, Megison knew this language was key. For one, a majority of rapes are not reported (about two out of three, according to , the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), and therefore don't result in a conviction. So, "clear and convincing evidence" is actually the second out of three possible standards of proof in court, explains Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor of law and faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School. The first is preponderance of evidence, or more than 50% likely that someone is guilty. Then there's clear and convincing evidence, "which is used when there's going to be a significant deprivation of a significant right [such as a biological mother or father's right to parent]," says Bartholet. Lastly, there's beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required to convict a person of a crime, like statutory rape, in criminal court.
Florida State Senator Joseph Abruzzo sponsored Megison's bill, and three years later, in 2013, it passed unanimously. Afterward, Megison started working with Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act, which helps rape survivors avoid custody battles by providing additional federal funding to states with protective statutes. It was signed into federal law by President Obama in 2015.
"It was incredibly gratifying to take a major step toward solving a problem that lurks in the shadows all across America," says Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz. "Women like Analyn are truly selfless in how much they have to set aside from a horrendous experience to be strong for their children and others."
Now, the onus is on the remaining 21 states to follow Florida's lead, and lower the barrier to "clear and convincing evidence" in order to terminate a rapist's parental rights. Megison eventually won her case, and now she is continuing to work with survivors and legislators around the country, helping them pass similar laws in their states.
Why would a rapist engage in a custody battle in the first place? "Rape is about power, and I can't think of a more powerful way to mess with someone than suing to exercise their parental rights," says Shauna Prewitt, a Chicago-based attorney who takes on custody cases for impregnated rape survivors. (Prewitt herself was raped and gave birth to a child conceived during her assault.)
"Many [women] are choosing to abort," explains Lisae Jordan, Executive Director & Counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Jordan stresses the importance of understanding what the options are for women who get pregnant from rape. "If she wants to place the child for adoption, her rapist can still stop the adoption by exercising his parental rights," she says. "If you want to raise the child yourself, you're opening yourself up for 18 years of the potential for your rapist to exercise their parental rights. The third option is to go underground."
Rachel* took that third option: She went underground after her assault more than 10 years ago. She was grabbing lunch near her office when a man standing with her in line introduced himself as Tom.* Two days later, Tom showed up at Rachel's office and got her number from a co-worker. They started talking casually, and when she mentioned one day that she had to move, Tom offered to help. Rachel hesitated, but ultimately took him up on the offer.
"One minute I was packing and getting things ready, and the next he was pinning me down, trying to kiss me," Rachel says. Tom put his elbow and forearm across her chest, and wrestled her onto the bed. "It was so hard to breathe that I thought I was going to die," she says. "I remember watching the blades of the ceiling fan slice through the air, hoping it would be done soon." Afterward, Tom went downstairs, said he'd call Rachel and left without another word. Rachel flew into the shower, a reaction she regrets now, and scrubbed herself down. "I was hysterical and not thinking straight," she says.
In the months that followed, Rachel became depressed — not eating, barely socializing and working too much. One night, she laid out a handful of sleeping pills, contemplating suicide. "Something in me kept wanting to live — I just didn't want to live this way, so I prayed and threw the pills away." Five months after Rachel's assault, her mom confronted her, asking if something "horrible" had happened. When Rachel said yes, her mother asked if she'd been raped. "I broke down and we cried together," Rachel says.
Rachel's mom accompanied her to the doctor because she was still in a lot of pain. They did a sonogram of Rachel's stomach, and she learned that she was five months pregnant. "That turned me around, and I started taking care of myself and preparing for the baby," she says. Knowing how violent Tom was, Rachel decided there was no way she would ever let him near her child. "I was told that he'd probably end up with visitation with my child if I pursued anything legally," she says. So, she never told him about the pregnancy.
Rachel and her young daughter now live a happy but very private life. She doesn't post often on social media; when she does, she makes sure to use the highest privacy settings. "I don't have a lot of friends because I don't trust people," she says.
She has no plans to tell her daughter the truth about her father. "It would destroy her to know somebody hurt me like that," she says. "Her little heart could not take it."
PAYING A HIGH PRICE
While Emily and her son lived abroad peacefully for three years, David was doing everything he could to find them. One chilly winter night, the police arrived at her front door. They brought Emily, devastated, back to the U.S. and then put her son on a plane to live with his grandparents.
"That night was beyond emotional — I couldn't react, I couldn't do anything. I was just in total shock," Emily says. "We were doing so well, and it all fell apart, all in one night. All I could do was worry about my son."
Emily served time in jail for fleeing the country and was initially granted supervised visits with her son. At first, he was happy to see her, but that soon deflated.
"He looked like the shell of the kid he used to be," Emily says of the first time she saw her son, now a teen. "All the joy that he used to have wasn't there anymore."
Once she got out of jail, Emily noticed a palpable anger in her son when she saw him. She'd offer to help with his homework or draw pictures with him, but every time she'd speak, he'd tell her to shut up. "I just kept saying, I love you, always remember how much Mommy loves you."
Eventually, there was a hearing to determine who should get full custody. According to David's family and other professionals involved in the case, Emily's son had made it clear that he did not want to see his mother. Emily pled her case at the hearing, but the final order issued by the judge granted permanent residential custody and control to David, with no option for Emily to have visitation rights.
Emily's story didn't end well — and many others' won't until the state laws in more than half of the country change. At the end of April, for example, Maryland voted down — for the ninth time — legislation that would terminate a rapist's parental rights. According to , those who were against it were concerned about protecting the rights of "men not convicted of crimes."
"Until the suspicion around rape and those who choose to mother after rape ends, there will be more unhappy endings than happy ones," says Prewitt, a Chicago-based lawyer and rape victims' advocate.
*Names have been changed.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual assault, you can call 's free, confidential sexual assault hotline at 800-656-HOPE.