LINCOLN — She made an agonizing decision two years ago to give birth to a child who was conceived during a rape.
Today, the 20-year-old Norfolk, Neb., woman has a beautiful toddler, but a different sort of agony. Recently a judge granted child visitation rights to the man who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting her.
“Most victims of rape choose to abort their babies,” she said. “Those of us who choose to keep our child have to face the overwhelming fear of being bullied and being controlled by the rapist.”
The woman testified last week in support of proposed legislation that would make it more difficult for sex offenders to claim parental rights to children conceived in a sexual assault.
Nebraska law currently terminates parental rights when the perpetrator is convicted of first-degree sexual assault. Under the legislative proposal, rights would also be terminated for those convicted of less-serious second-degree and third-degree sexual assaults.
The offender in the Norfolk case was originally charged with first-degree sexual assault, but he eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree sexual assault.
Reached after the legislative hearing, the 23-year-old man said he fought for visitation not to manipulate the victim but to establish a relationship with his daughter.
An attorney for the mother questioned him extensively, and he underwent psychological testing, which was provided to the court. The judge in the case determined the man did not represent a threat to the child.
The mother was granted sole legal and physical custody. Under last month's court order, the father's brief visitation sessions are supervised and will take place at a counseling office, where the mother can drop off and pick up the girl without having to come into contact with her attacker.
“I understand the delicacy of the situation,” he said. “If she is traumatized by the event, seeing me would cause a lot of emotions for her.”
Similar visitation arrangements aren't unheard of, said Amy Richardson, director of the Women's Center for Advancement in Omaha. The center, which runs a hot line for victims of sexual assault, sees “a handful” of such cases every year.
Just the prospect of being forced to allow visitation prompts some sexual assault victims to forgo child support claims against their rapists, Richardson said.
“One would have to question how that could be in the child's best interest,” she said.
Yet that's exactly what Madison County District Judge James Kube had to determine in the Norfolk child visitation case. The same judge handled the related criminal case.
Norfolk police got involved April 1, 2011, when a high school counselor called about an 18-year-old student who was pregnant and said she had been raped, according to court records.
The young woman told an officer the incident had occurred at a co-worker's apartment about two months earlier. She and the co-worker, who was a 20-year-old college student, engaged in consensual physical contact, but she made it clear she did not want to have intercourse. Specifically, she told him she wanted to remain a virgin until marriage.
When questioned by the woman, the co-worker told her he was penetrating her with his fingers, which wasn't true. The next morning she once again asked if she was still a virgin. Lying, he told her she was.
The woman told the officer that she suffered from occasional blackouts and that she had no clear memory of the incident.
Under police questioning, he conceded that he had engaged in intercourse with the young woman, who had not given him consent, the arrest affidavit stated. He was arrested and charged in May 2011.
By late September 2011, the prosecution reduced the charges and the man pleaded guilty. He served about two weeks in jail and 18 months of probation. He also must register as a sex offender for 15 years.
About a month after the criminal case concluded, the child was born, and the young mother sought public assistance through the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. That application set in motion the events that would lead to the eventual visitation order.
HHS required the mother to identify the father. The state, in turn, ordered paternity testing, confirming that the young man was the child's father.
In March 2012 the state began pursuing an order of child support against the father. In response, he filed a claim seeking visitation, and the mother obtained an attorney to help her fight the claim.
The civil case played out over the next 21 months. Rather than go to trial and risk having less control over what sort of visitation might be granted, the mother and her attorney decided to negotiate the terms of the visitation. The judge signed the order last month.
The order requires the father to pay $450 per month in child support and requires the mother to allow 30 minutes of supervised visitation every other week.
The father said at one point it was suggested that if he gave up his visitation claim, he wouldn't have to pay child support. He declined, saying it wasn't about money.
The judge ordered a review of the visitation arrangement after six months. The father said he hopes he gradually will be granted more time with the child.
“I would like to have a normal father-daughter relationship — although, under the circumstances, I realize that may not happen,” he said.
Society often views sexual assaults as a matter of degree, said Elizabeth Power with the Women's Center for Advancement. Some cases are worse than others. Some victims are more responsible for what happens to them than others.
Whether it's a date rape, a stranger attack or a situation in which the woman doesn't remember the assault, the trauma can be profound. And while she can heal through counseling, treatment and support, her scars remain forever, Power said.
She and Richardson said they support Legislative Bill 748, which was introduced by State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln. In cases in which a child is conceived through sexual assault, the bill would require county attorneys to file petitions to terminate the man's parental rights. The bill would allow for exceptions if the mother or guardian consents or if judges find that terminating parental rights is not in the child's best interest.
The bill would still require the man to pay child support.
“We must not have cases in our state where a person is faced with choosing between a lifetime tethered to a rapist or moving forward with a meaningful life for herself and her child,” Avery said as he introduced the bill to the Judiciary Committee.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who sits on the committee, expressed concerns that parental rights could be cut off for men who have been wrongly accused or whose convictions are later overturned.
That's not the situation in the Norfolk case. But attorney Frederick Bartell, who represented the father in the visitation matter, suggested it's better to let the courts decide what's best for children on a case-by-case basis.
“He is actively contributing to the child's financial welfare,” Bartell said. “This is not re-victimization. This is a father taking responsibility for his child.”
The child's mother said she sees it differently.
“I don't think anyone who's been raped should be forced to have ongoing contact with their rapist,” she said.