BEFORE HER SON began school last year, Tiffany Gordon showed his father’s mugshot to school administrators. “If you see this guy, you have to call the police,” she told them.
Ten years earlier, when Tiffany was 12, a young man she knew invited her, her sister, and a friend on a late-night car ride. “I thought we would be going to McDonald’s,” Tiffany recalls. Instead, 18-year-old Christopher Mirasolo raped Tiffany and took the girls to an abandoned house in eastern Michigan.
When the hiding place was discovered, it marked the end of one nightmare—and the beginning of another. A month later, Tiffany realized she was pregnant. A prosecutor filed charges against Mirasolo, who might have faced a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for impregnating a minor if he had not pleaded guilty to attempted rape, which resulted in a prison sentence of just two years. A judge let him out less than a year later. Not long after, Mirasolo raped another young girl and was sentenced to 5 to 15 years behind bars.
Tiffany’s parents supported her decision to keep the baby. Other family members urged her to consider an abortion. But she was adamant: “My son was innocent,” Tiffany, now 23, remembers telling her family.
She dropped out of school and stayed afloat working odd jobs. For almost nine years, she didn’t speak about the assault and tried to suppress the memories—until 2017, when she applied for state assistance. Without looking into the circumstances of how she became pregnant, county probate judge Gregory S. Ross granted Mirasolo joint custody and ordered Tiffany to live within 100 miles of him. Making matters worse, Ross disclosed Tiffany’s address to Mirasolo and ordered that his name be added to her son’s birth certificate, according to her lawyer, Rebecca Kiessling.
Tiffany’s experience battling her rapist for parental rights is not unique. As many as 32,000 women get pregnant through rape every year, and at least one-third decide to raise the baby instead of getting an abortion or choosing adoption. But because more than a third of all states do not terminate an assailant’s custody rights unless he’s been convicted of felony sexual assault, the women who make that choice can be forced to co-parent with their rapist. Even in states that make it easier to deny rapists’ parental rights, loopholes abound, and prosecutors and judges have broad discretion in these cases.
That many rape survivors are forced to share custody with their assailants gained fresh relevance this spring, when Alabama lawmakers passed a near-total ban on abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest. Critics said the law was tantamount to forced motherhood and pointed out that Alabama was one of only two states with no law barring custody rights even when the assailant was convicted of first-degree rape. At the center of the debate was Tiffany’s lawyer. Kiessling supports abortion bans even in cases of rape but she is also fighting for laws to protect rape survivors who do not want to share custody with their assailants. As such, she sits at an unusual confluence of arguments over women’s rights and has become a thorn in the side of legislators who have pushed laws that force women to carry their pregnancies to term without considering their impact on rape survivors. For Kiessling, ending all abortions shouldn’t mean rapists can claim shared custody. “There is nobody more vulnerable than a pregnant rape victim, so you’ve got to protect her,” she says.
Following significant media attention, thanks to Kiessling and a petition signed by more than 140,000 people, Ross reversed his decision granting Mirasolo custody in October 2017, saying he was not aware of Tiffany’s rape. But facing her rapist in court retraumatized Tiffany. The custody case “should never have been filed. That should be up to her,” Kiessling says. Two years after the court battle, Mirasolo’s probation has ended, and with it, the no-contact order, Tiffany explains. She worries that Mirasolo could drop back into her son’s life. “Does he show up and kidnap him? I don’t know,” Tiffany says. “Could he show up at his school and take him?”
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