Tuesday, October 25, 2005

parental rights of sex offenders' wives

the ny times reports* that a pennsylvania woman lost custody of her newborn son because the child's father was convicted of sex crimes. melissa wolfhawk gave birth last tuesday. although she lives separately from her husband, a schuylkill county judge stripped her of custody and sent the baby to the county's department of children and youth services. ms. wolfhawk will only get two hours of supervised visits before an october 31 hearing, but is appealing the custody decision in federal court. her husband, daishin john wolfhawk, served 10 years on a 1983 conviction of rape and sodomy of two teenage girls. according to the times:

The unusual case has raised some doubts even with groups that champion the rights of abused children. Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said he respected the right of agencies to take custody of endangered children, but said that the standard for removing a child had to be set "very high." "If somebody was convicted 20 years ago and has not reoffended, and the circumstances of the offense would not appear to make him a threat to young children, then this is troublesome," Mr. Allen said. David L. Levy, the chief executive of the Children's Rights Council, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, said, "I am not aware of any case where a 20-year-old conviction, no matter how heinous, has been used to remove a child from the care of the perpetrator and from a mother who had nothing to do with that crime." "The state may think that because they're married, the only way to make the child safe from the father is to remove him from the mother," he said. "But what about her due process and constitutional rights? If they can show a present danger, I'd be the first one to support removal, but they need to show a connection between 20 years ago and now."

the case offers another example of the hyperstigma applied to sex offenders today -- it appears to be a permanent mark that extends beyond any official sanction. but regardless of the father's fitness, this case sets a troubling precedent for mothers who have committed no crimes whatsoever. i suspect that ms. wolfhawk's best chance of getting the boy back will be to divorce mr. wolfhawk and to relocate far from him. i've never heard of a case quite like this, although sex offenders who victimize children have been deprived of parental rights while under supervision, as have parents who kill their children. so i guess there are a few questions here:

1. which crimes, if any, should affect one's rights to be a parent? all sex crimes? murder? sex crimes against children? incest? what about drug use? any felony? reckless driving?

2. for how long should such a restriction be enforced? during the sentence, for a 2-5 year waiting period beyond the sentence? for 10 years? forever?

3. should both parents be liable for the sins of the father (or, i guess, the mother)? what should melissa wolfhawk have to do to get her kid back?

*thanks to "guilty k." for the heads-up on this story.

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