Children of rape: What help for mothers raising these youngsters?
Society rarely talks about children conceived as a result of rape. But recent high-profile incidents, like the one involving 'Jane Doe' in Santa Ana, Calif., this week, have put these children in the national spotlight.
Ken Steinhardt/The Orange County Register/AP
Neighbors of California kidnapping suspect Isidro Garcia have a difficult time reconciling their impressions of a typical husband and doting father with the charges brought against him Thursday by the Orange County district attorney: that he sexually abused and abducted the 15-year-old daughter of his then-girlfriend, continued to abuse her for a decade, and forced her into marriage and pregnancy.
Prosecutors say the survivor, identified as “Jane Doe,” reunited with her mother and a sister she found recently on Facebook and then went to police, who arrested Mr. Garcia Wednesday. Garcia’s defense attorney denies the charges, saying they are a couple going through a separation.
Jane Doe’s daughter, now 3, was born into a society that rarely talks about children conceived as a result of rape. But other high-profile incidents in recent years have put these children in the national spotlight – most notably the story of Amanda Berry and two other women who escaped after being held captive for years in Cleveland.
Ms. Berry’s young daughter, Jocelyn (conceived when Berry was raped by abductor Ariel Castro), told the women that Castro had lapsed in his usual routine of locking the door, emboldening them to escape, according to an account by author Alan Hall. In 2011, Jaycee Dugard, another kidnapping survivor, dedicated her memoir to the two daughters she bore during 18 years in captivity – “For the times we’ve cried together, laughed together and all the times in between.”
Survivors of rape – whether their stories are told around the world or held close – face mixed reactions, ranging from support and empathy to victim-blaming.
When a woman has a child resulting from rape, she may be fortunate enough to have family and friends who help her move forward in life.
But often such women can feel isolated and concerned about how their children will be treated. And they can confront strong reactions, such as people telling them the child is the “spawn of an evil act” and should have been aborted or adopted, which happened to Analyn Megison, a mother in Florida who was raped and had a daughter as a result. (Her daughter is now 9 years old.)
A study in 2000 estimated that 25,000 rapes result in pregnancy in the United States each year, and other studies have found that at least 32 percent of the women keep and raise the child, according to a Georgetown Law Journal article by Chicago lawyer Shauna Prewitt.
Jane Doe now has a victim advocate through the Orange County District Attorney’s contract with the nonprofit Community Service Programs Inc. in Santa Ana. The group typically connects a victim with a mental-health professional “to process what’s happened, and figure out how to make a path forward for what we call a ‘new normal’ for them,” says Ronnetta Johnson, director of CSP’s Victim Assistance Programs.
A victim’s advocate also explains the legal system and will be with the women in court throughout any resulting trial of the accused.
“One of the things that is critical in these types of situations is the erosion of trust. Victims have been taught they have no one to turn to,” Ms. Johnson says, so the advocate works hard to be reliable, to keep promises, and to rebuild a sense of trust. Victims of abuse often endure unimaginable psychological pressure to stay with their abusers, she says, so it’s important for people not to blame victims, and for victims to realize that there are organizations in their communities that they can turn to for help.
In the aftermath of a case like Jane Doe’s in California, “the parent getting help is the most critical thing in the world for this child,” says Steve Ajl, a pediatrician and the director of the Jane Barker Brooklyn Children's Advocacy Center. The child should be told in an age-appropriate way that something bad happened to mommy, he says, but “it’s a very difficult situation … to say that and in the same breath say people are good and you should trust people,” so the child can grow up with confidence and independence.
Ms. Megison says counseling and her faith helped her get through the aftermath of her rape, which happened when she lived in New Orleans. But when she moved to Florida after hurricane Katrina, she confronted something even more shocking than the hurtful comments people made to her. The man she married when her baby was a year old became abusive and threatened to tell her daughter that she was a “rape baby.” And her alleged rapist, who has yet to be prosecuted, tried to assert rights as a father to get visitations with her daughter.
At the time, she found there was no law in Florida – and more than half the other states – specifically designed to terminate the parental rights of rapists. Fortunately, she says, a judge used his discretion to require an evidentiary hearing about whether a rape had occurred before allowing the man any contact with the child, and the man decided not to pursue his claim.
As she researched the law, she connected with Ms. Prewitt, who had also experienced this type of revictimization by the rapist father of her child. They and several other women founded Hope After Rape Conception, a nonprofit support and advocacy group based in Illinois.
They successfully pushed to change the law in Florida and several other states, so that “clear and convincing evidence” of rape can lead to a termination of a father’s parental rights.
That way, they say, rape survivors are on equal footing with people who want to terminate someone’s rights because of drug abuse, child abuse, or for other reasons, rather than having to meet a more stringent burden of proof required in criminal cases of rape, which often are not prosecuted successfully.
On the federal level, US Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) of Florida introduced HR 2772, the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act, in 2013. It would increase sexual-violence-prevention funding to states with such laws. Currently 24 states, including California, have them.
It’s more common for states to provide rape survivors with emergency contraception, easier access to abortion, or quick termination of parental rights of the father when the child is being given up for adoption.
While some women choose those paths, sometimes because the thought of the child triggers a replay of the trauma, the Hope group says it’s important that society not stereotype rape survivors and end up ostracizing women who choose to keep their children.
“People ridicule you and distrust you because you chose to have your child – ‘Oh, you must not have been raped,’ ” Megison says. “It’s such a strange world we live in where you have to be questioned as a mother why you love the child that … you nurse and play with and pray with and read stories with.”
Megison has so far been able to shield her daughter from knowing the details of her conception, despite her ex-husband’s attempts to put a rift between the girl and the half-siblings he fathered. But she’s not treating it as a secret, and plans to be honest when her daughter starts asking more questions.
“I love her so much,” Megison says. “I’m hoping to make this world a better place so that as she grows … there is a loving acceptance … and not a frightened, condemning, judgmental attitude because of what her father did.”