State senator wants to change law that allows rapists to retain parental rights

A protester holds a sign outside the Alabama state Capitol.
Minnesota and Alabama are the only two states that do not terminate parental rights when a child is conceived in rape. Here, a protester dressed as a character from "A Handmaid's Tale" rallies outside the Alabama state Capitol May 19, 2019.
Seth Herald | AFP | Getty Images

Heidi fought back when a judge told her she must share custody of her child with a man who she says raped her.

The judge granted him the right to see her son each Tuesday, every other weekend from Friday night through Sunday, on alternating holidays and for three weeks in the summer, according to documents. He could attend school functions and buy the boy gifts. She had to see the man every time she dropped her son off for visits, and if she pushed back at all, she could be accused of parental alienation and stripped of custody of her son.

She appealed the ruling, but her case was denied review.

"[I] struggle to move on with my life and I wonder how ... to do so when I have to see this man every other day," she said, according to court documents from 2006. "Our system needs to be revamped, but I need help now."

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

MPR News does not typically name victims of sexual assault.

Today, Minnesota is still one of two states — including Alabama — that doesn't have a law on the books terminating parental rights in cases where rape and incest result in conception. More than half of states end parental rights when there is "clear and convincing evidence" that a child was conceived by rape. There are as few as 7,750 and as many as 32,000 rape-related pregnancies in the United States, according to the Washington Post.

Kari Dziedzic
Kari Dziedzic in December 2011.
Matt Sepic | Matt Sepic 2011

Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, is introducing a bill next legislative session to put the same "clear and convincing" standard in Minnesota law that many other states have.

"I think ours could be cleaner and clearer from the start," she said.

While Minnesota law doesn't automatically terminate a rapists' parenting rights, there are some options for victims. A person convicted of certain crimes, including rape and murder, has to prove to a judge that custody is in the best interest of the child.

But Dziedzic said many rape cases don't end in conviction. Fewer than 1 percent of rape cases result in a criminal conviction or incarceration, according the Department of Justice.

Dziedzic said adding the "clear and convincing" language to the law would create a process, likely through family courts, with or without a conviction.

"What if the case is overturned?" Dziedzic asked. "[There are] a whole bunch of things that you don't automatically think of."

The "clear and convincing" standard is lower than the "beyond a reasonable" doubt standard used in criminal cases. It's defined as "highly and substantially more probable to be true than not."

The proposal comes as lawmakers are reevaluating all state laws related to sexual harassment and assault.

Earlier this year, the Legislature eliminated a law that shielded partners in cases where they rape their spouse, as well as one that said grabbing someone's buttocks over their clothes could not be criminal sexual conduct. Legislators also established a group that will review all state laws relating to sexual harassment and assault.

But other proposals didn't advance. One bill, which would eliminate a strict "severe or pervasive" court standard to hear sexual harassment cases, was passed in the House but didn't move in the Senate.

Dziedzic said this bill fits perfectly in that discussion.

"This discussion keeps evolving," she said. "As long as we're going to update and look at everything, why don't we also update this law?"