A 22-year-old woman is reeling in fear after a state appeals court ordered that the man convicted of raping her seven years ago can press his claim in family court for the right to visit the child conceived during the sex assault.
“It makes me very scared. My main priority is to keep my daughter safe,” the woman told the Herald. “I’m worried. I shouldn’t have to go to family court. I don’t want to go to family court with a man that raped me. I don’t want to worry that a man who raped me will come and take my daughter.”
The Massachusetts Court of Appeals this week denied the woman’s request to throw out a paternity ruling that gives her rapist the ability to drag her into probate court and argue that he should be able to see the child. Wendy Murphy, the woman’s lawyer, said she will appeal the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court — while also pressing lawmakers to advance bills aiming to keep convicted rapists from seeking child visitation rights.
“I want them to recognize it is not a family,” said the woman, who is referred to in court records as H.T. She said the court decision “does let me down, but mainly it scared me. I hope we can win in some court at some time.”
Murphy, director of the Women’s and Children’s Advocacy Project at New England Law School, said the case is the “first time an appeals court answered the question of whether a convicted rapist has any parental rights to go to family court.”
“All of this is exceedingly dangerous territory,” Murphy said. “Is this ruling going to incentivize offenders to go to family court? I think without a doubt it will.”
H.T. was a 14-year-old in 8th grade when she met 20-year-old Jamie Melendez in 2009, according to Murphy. Melendez had dated a friend of H.T.’s older sister, and he learned the girl was often home alone after school. In all, he raped her three or four times while she was by herself after school, Murphy said.
Melendez was arrested in May 2009 and charged with four counts of rape of a child. H.T. got pregnant because of the rape and decided to keep the child for religious reasons.
DNA tests tied Melendez to the child, and he pleaded guilty to the rape in September 2011. Melendez was sentenced to 16 years probation and ordered to start a family court proceeding, which ordered him to pay $110 in weekly child support.
H.T. disagreed with the sentencing that ordered the family court proceeding, saying she didn’t want anything to do with her rapist, let alone a legal relationship that leaves only a judge between Melendez and her daughter.
Melendez took steps to gain visitation rights for the child in 2014, but his request was denied by a family court judge who saw it as a “bargaining chip” to lower his child support payments.
Efforts to reach Melendez were unsuccessful.
A controversial parents’ rights law passed in Massachusetts in 2014 allows a family court judge to give a convicted rapist the right to visit the child conceived by his victim if “visitation is in the best interest of the child.”
Twelve other states and the District of Columbia deny or restrict custody or visitation if the child was conceived as a result of a rape or sexual assault, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Rapists can use the parental rights derived from a DNA match as leverage to squirm out of child support by threatening they will file for visitation, Murphy said.
H.T., now seven years after the rape, is working two jobs and attending nursing school; her daughter is healthy, Murphy said.
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