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In Massachusetts, it is perfectly legal for a man to seek custody of a child he fathered by raping a woman. As strange as this sounds, a woman is currently fighting to prevent this scenario from becoming her reality.
When Jamie Melendez was 20 years old, he raped H.T., a fourteen-year-old girl, impregnating her. (To keep the victim's identity discreet, she's known as H.T.) H.T. had the child, and in 2011, Jamie was convicted of rape and sentenced to 16 years probation. Until a family court ordered Jamie to pay child support, he expressed no desire to participate in his daughter's life. Now he wants visitation rights. Last month, H.T. sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in federal court to prevent Jamie from seeing their daughter.
This has placed Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in a difficult position. In the midst of H.T. fighting her case against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Martha announced she was running for governor of Massachusetts. As the attorney general, it’s Martha’s responsibility to represent Massachusetts in federal court. Publically opposing H.T.’s wishes in court could become a public relations disaster for Martha’s campaign. Recently, the attorney general’s office has become outspoken against Jamie’s attempt to gain visitation rights, while arguing that the case could be settled in family court where the legal conflict began.
“We do not believe that this convicted rapist should be allowed visitation rights to this child,” Brad Puffer, spokesman for the attorney general’s office told me last Monday. “We are currently in the process of responding to the complaint to ensure that a proper legal process is followed while respecting the victim’s rights.”
Later, I spoke to H.T.’s attorney, Wendy Murphy, a professor at New England Law School. Over the phone, Wendy said she was determined to fight for her client but concerned the state law would make it difficult for her to prevent Jamie from seeing the child. “There’s a body of law that relates to the family court’s question that all but guarantees that the man will succeed,” she said.
Wendy's right. Massachusetts is merely one of 31 states that do not have laws precluding men from seeking custody for children born as a result of rape. For that reason, this particular case bears larger significance for Wendy and her client – it’s indicative of a predominant attitude towards rape in the United States, one which Wendy considers a larger systemic problem.
“Rape is what I would call the ugly stepsister. As crime goes, it’s really always been at the bottom of the ladder of crimes we care about,” she said. “We’re dealing with a social problem that has never gotten the respect it deserves, in part because the bodies of women have never been protected in a way that the law should protect women’s bodies.”
The statistics bolster Murphy’s points – the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that one in six women in the United States have experienced an attempted rape or rape and rape has been called the most underreported violent crime in America.
On Friday, Wendy said the attorney general's office filed a motion to dismiss the case. Initially, there was no explanation for why the motion was filed, and it’s still unknown whether or not a judge will grant it. The attorney general's office has told VICE they would let us know the outcome of their decision, but after many brief conversations with a spokesperson, they have yet to provide us with the information.
Yesterday, Wendy sent VICE court documents stating the attorney general filed the motion because “this Court lacks jurisdiction to review the judgments and orders entered in the challenged state court proceedings, and this Court should abstain from interfering in any pending state court proceedings.”
If the case is dismissed entirely and not refiled successfully in another court, this could become an example of a woman falling victim to an egregiously ill-conceived system of laws, which failed to protect her from the very man who did her devastating harm.
Despite the setbacks, Wendy believes her client may still win the case. “I think we [will] easily win on all counts,” she said.
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