Students' custody bill wins approval
BRATTLEBORO -- What began as a class project soon will become a Vermont law.
Before adjourning for 2014, the Legislature approved H.88, a bill allowing mothers to petition for sole custody of a child who was conceived as a result of a sexual assault.
The legislation originated last year through the efforts of two Brattleboro Union High School students. One of those students, Stacy Blackadar, now says she is pleased with the version eventually approved by state lawmakers.
"It's one of these things that was kind of a no-brainer," Blackadar said. "This bill prevents women from becoming further victims of rape."
Blackadar and Shannakay Nichols became aware of the issue in fall 2012 when they were taking classes led by then-BUHS teacher Tim Kipp, who noted that more than 30 states allow a rapist to sue for custody rights for a child who was conceived during that assault.
Blackadar considered that fact "mind-blowing," and she and Nichols drew up a position statement. It read, in part: "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 contacted and later met with state Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington. Manwaring last year said the students "came to me with a well-researched, well-thought-out framework for legislation."
The bill was introduced in 2013. It initially passed the House in the second month of the 2014 session and received final approval after amendments in the session's final few weeks.
Blackadar, now a Community College of Vermont student who plans to pursue a career in nursing, testified for the bill in January in Montpelier and then stayed to watch some debate on the issue.
"It was very interesting to see the process," she said, adding that she does not feel that the legislation was diluted before final approval.
"I feel that it represents everything that I wanted it to," Blackadar said. "People were very open and willing to listen to my opinions."
She has felt that same kind of support since initially pitching the legislation last year.
"A lot of people heard about what we were doing, and they got behind it," Blackadar said.
Those supporters include Manwaring, who said the governor is expected to sign H.88 though no date has been set.
"I think it's really terrific that a couple of high school students in an advanced-placement class pushed this forward," Manwaring said.
The legislation sets up a court process by which a victim of sexual assault can pursue sole custody of a child conceived in that assault. That legal structure is important, Manwaring said.
"This has to be a court order," she said. "You don't just terminate somebody's parental rights, regardless of the circumstances."
But Manwaring also said the bill, when it becomes law, "is going to change people's lives. Not a lot of people, but in significant ways."
State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, was another supporter of the legislation. Following a unanimous House vote in favor of the bill in February, Mrowicki remarked on "another example of students participating in the process and shining light on an injustice that needs attention."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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