BUHS students help craft custody bill

Saturday April 6, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Stacy Blackadar is a proud Vermonter.

But she found it difficult to believe that her home state did not better protect the child-custody rights of women who become pregnant due to a sexual assault.

So the Brattleboro Union High School student and a classmate decided to do something about that, helping to draft legislation that has been introduced in the state House.

Along the way, she has learned real-life lessons about the democratic process and the important role that even a 17-year-old high school student can play in it.

"To give up on trying to make the world a better place -- or your community, your state or your country a better place -- is like giving up on yourself," Blackadar said. "If something bothers you, don't sit back. Don't sit back and take it."

The issue first grabbed the attention of Blackadar and fellow student Shannakay Nichols last fall while the two were taking classes led by teacher Tim Kipp.

Kipp mentioned that 31 states allow a rapist to sue for custody rights for a child who was conceived during that assault. Vermont is one of them.

"When you hear something like that, it was mind-blowing to me," Blackadar said.

She and Nichols began to research the issue with the idea of not only completing a project for Kipp's class but also attempting to craft a bill that could become state law.

"The interest was that we could make a change," Blackadar said. "I just thought to myself, ‘What if this was my mom? What if this was my best friend?'"

They drew up a position statement that began by asking the reader to imagine "the most important women and girls in your life."

"Now imagine them being violated by a man in the most graphic, horrendous, violent, degrading, embarrassing and scary way. Imagine what they went through," the students wrote. "Now imagine them being brave enough to carry the child out of that incident. Imagine the strength and courage that takes. Why does our state make it a possibility that man -- that violator -- has a right to be in their lives forever?"

They later added: "If you rob a bank, it is not your right to keep the money after; you do not deserve it. If you rob a woman of her integrity, if you rob from her something she holds close -- her privacy and her dignity -- you do not deserve to be in that child's life and her's."

Blackadar said she understands that many women who conceive as a result of a sexual assault may choose to not keep the baby. But for those who do have the child, "they decided that this is what they wanted to do," she said. "And we are going to make it more difficult for them?"

Blackadar, a West Dover resident, got in touch via e-mail with state Rep. Ann Manwaring, a Wilmington Democrat. The two met at Dot's of Dover to discuss the matter.

Blackadar said she was impressed that Manwaring knew her family personally and "made me feel really comfortable." She also was impressed with what happened next.

"She's really inspiring and very insightful," Blackadar said. "She talked to so many people. Without her, this wouldn't be where it is today."

Manwaring returned the compliment.

"Stacy Blackadar and Shannakay Nichols are remarkable young women who, while still in high school, found a wrong and did something about it," Manwaring said. "They came to me with a well-researched, well-thought-out framework for legislation."

The measure, titled House Bill 88, was introduced in late January and referred to the House Judiciary Committee. The relatively short bill's purpose is to "permit a parent to petition the court for permanent sole custody of a child who was conceived as a result of a sexual assault."

A parent can ask the court for sole custody "if the court determines by clear and convincing evidence that the child was conceived as a result of sexual assault" and the other parent was the perpetrator of that assault.

The bill also says a rape conviction is not necessarily required; instead, "the court may consider other evidence of a sexual assault in making its determination."

These permanent custody rulings are "not subject to modification," and they also bar any issuance of a parent-child contact order. But the victim still can seek child support.

Though the bill remains in committee, more than 40 House members are listed as supporters. In Windham County, they include Manwaring, Mike Mrowicki of Putney, David Deen of Westminster, Dick Marek of Newfane, Carolyn Partridge of Windham, Valerie Stuart of Brattleboro and Matt Trieber of Rockingham.

Kipp is hoping his students' idea becomes law in short order.

"Some legislation is easy to get through, and some is hard," Kipp said. "I think this one is so logical and such an issue of fairness and justice. The fact that (Manwaring) has so many co-sponsors is an indication that there is wide support for this."

He also hopes his students are getting a crash-course in democracy.

"The only way we're going to save democracy is, you have to get involved," Kipp said. "Or we're going to lose it."

Blackadar calls the experience "amazing." But she thinks it should not have been necessary for two high school students to propose such legislation.

"I don't understand how we haven't created a safe environment for women yet," she said. "This is one simple step -- one simple thing."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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