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story.lead_photo.caption Alabama resident Jessica Stallings says she was 12 when her uncle started raping her. Despite DNA tests that proved incest, her uncle has maintained parental rights to their two children. "I've spent my entire life scared to death of my rapist, and now, I'm fighting him for custody of my children," Stallings said. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Audra Melton

When a young woman went to the Family Services of North Alabama office last year for help with trauma, saying she had been raped by her step-uncle when she was 15, rape crisis advocate Portia Shepherd heard something that "killed me, shocked me."

The step-uncle, who was getting out of jail after a drug conviction, wanted to be a part of their child's life. And in Alabama, the alleged rapist could get custody.

"It's the craziest thing I ever heard in my life," Shepherd said. "On the state level, people were shocked. How could Alabama even be missing this law?"

Alabama is one of two states with no statute terminating parental rights for a person found to have conceived the child by rape or incest, a fact that has gained fresh relevance since its lawmakers adopted the nation's strictest abortion ban in May. That statute even outlaws the procedure for victims of sexual assault and jails doctors who perform it, except in cases of serious risk to the woman's health.

While the Alabama abortion law has been challenged in court, abortion-rights activists fear it could reduce access to the procedure, forcing rape victims to bear children and co-parent with their attackers.

Last month, Alabama lawmakers considered a bill that addressed ending parental rights in cases of rape that result in conception, but the Legislature removed that language, limiting the law to cases in which people sexually assault their children.

State Sen. Vivian Figures, a Democrat, and other lawmakers believed the language that was removed could have excluded boys who were assaulted because they cannot get pregnant. Figures said she didn't know Alabama lacked a statute preventing rapists from gaining custody of their offspring but said that she now plans to introduce a bill in the next legislative session.

"It's just flat-out ugly, unfair and even dangerous to these mothers and children," said Figures, who voted against the state's abortion ban.

Some anti-abortion activists have been at the forefront of efforts to pass such laws. Rebecca Kiessling, an anti-abortion family attorney who was conceived by rape, said the laws protect women who choose to keep their pregnancies.

"Maybe they wouldn't abort or give the child up for adoption if they knew they were protected," she said.

But laws terminating parental rights in rape cases have raised controversy.

Ned Holstein, board chairman for the National Parents Organization, which advocates for shared parenting after divorce, said that allowing family courts to sever parental rights based on rape accusations is "an open invitation to fraud."

"Taking a person's child away is a grievous act," he said. "And if it is done to an innocent parent, you are also denying the child a fit parent forever and putting her into the sole custody of a ruthless parent who is willing to fabricate a heinous accusation."

Even if a person is convicted of rape, "there is merit on both sides of this issue, and we have no position on it, either way," he said of his organization.

In addition to Alabama, only Minnesota has no law terminating parental rights in rape cases. Many states adopted such statutes after Congress passed the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act in 2015, granting additional funding to help sexual assault victims in states that allow courts to end parental rights when there is "clear and convincing evidence" that a child was conceived by rape.

Activists argue that the conviction standard is too high, given three out of four rapes in the United States go unreported, according to an analysis by the nonprofit advocacy group Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which used an annual study conducted by the Justice Department. While the data is debated, RAINN estimates that less than 1% of all rapes lead to criminal convictions with incarceration.

Jessica Stallings said she was 12 when her mother's half brother began climbing into her bed at night. Before she turned 18, she had endured four pregnancies. The first ended in miscarriage, and one son died of a disease more likely to occur in cases of incest.

Then her family forced her to marry her uncle, she said.

Stallings later fled, and a court deemed the marriage illegal because of a "familial relationship."

She built a stable home in Fort Payne, Ala., for her sons, now 15 and 12. But in the winter of 2017, she discovered that she was not yet free of the man she calls "Uncle Lenny."

Despite DNA tests that proved incest, he maintained parental rights to the boys and fought Stallings for visitation. A judge ruled he was entitled to see them for three days during Christmastime.

Her uncle -- Lenion Richard Barnett Jr., 39 -- could not be reached for comment, and his attorneys declined to speak about his case with Stallings.

These laws -- or the lack of them -- could affect thousands of parents and children annually. The estimated number of rape-related pregnancies in the United States ranges from 7,750 to 32,000, but there's no accurate data for how many women keep those children, experts say.

For those who do raise their children, it's not unheard of for the men to seek involvement in their lives. As many as 90% of rapes are committed by attackers whom the victims know, said Maralee McLean, author of Prosecuted, But Not Silenced: Courtroom Reform for Sexually Abused Children.

Stallings has been fighting over custody of her children since 2015.

Barnett was recently was released from jail on bail after being charged with possession of methamphetamine and suboxone. Their 12-year-old son was in the car with Barnett when he was arrested, said Tyler Pruitt, public information officer for DeKalb County sheriff's office.

"I understand father's rights," said Pruitt, "but in this case -- and we all know him around here -- he's not fit to parent."

Stallings describes herself as "100 percent pro-life," but says she feels compelled to "speak out and help other women" by showing that Alabama's abortion ban is grievously unfair without changes in child-custody laws.

"I've decided I won't be silenced," she said. "I want other women in Alabama to know that their rapist may be in their lives -- maybe forever -- if this law isn't passed."

Information for this article was contributed by Alice Crites, Julie Tate and Chip Brownlee of The Washington Post.

A Section on 06/10/2019

Print Headline: Alabama rapists eligible for custody

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