dana liebelson

Dana Liebelson


Dana Liebelson is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. Her work also appears in Marie Claire and The Week. In her free time, she plays electric violin and bass in a punk band.

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It Took Ariel Castro to Get Ohio to Start Taking Away Rapists' Parental Rights. Here Are the States That Haven't Yet.

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 11:58 AM EST
Ariel Castro in custody.

Last summer, when Ariel Castro was on trial in Ohio for kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder, he made an unusual request to the judge: He wanted parental rights to visit the six-year-old daughter he had conceived through rape. Given the magnitude of the charges—Castro was ultimately sentenced to life without parole, plus 1,000 years in prison, before committing suicide in September—the judge denied the request. But Ohio has no law on the books preventing alleged or convicted rapists from seizing parental rights of the children they may have conceived through rape. That could soon change. Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill, inspired by Castro, that would prevent this scenario in the future. And Ohio isn't the only state to take action on this. If Ohio enacts the bill, it will join a number of other states that have done so in the last year: Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, and Illinois. There is also a bipartisan bill pending in the House that would give financial incentives to states that pass these laws.

"I think it's great that more states are getting on board and passing legislation addressing the parental rights of men who father through rape," says Shauna Prewitt, a Chicago lawyer. She says her daughter was conceived through rape, and the father attempted to seize custody rights while she was pressing charges against him. "We've seen a sharp uptick in interest, which I largely contribute to states finally understanding that this is a real problem."

The Ohio bill, if signed into law, would make it so that rapists are unable to seize inheritance or parental rights of children they conceived through the rape (they do, however, still have to pay child support). A spokesperson for Ohio State Rep. Nickie Antonio, a Democrat who is one the bill's sponsors, says that she expects the legislation to be referred to a Senate committee as soon as this week.

At least 24 states now have laws addressing the custody of children conceived through rape. Two additional states have provisions on the issue that only apply if the victim is a minor or, in one of those cases, a stepchild or adopted child of the rapist. Another three states don't explicitly address conception, but restrict the parental rights of a father or mother who sexually abused the other parent. And among those states that do have laws, many require proof of conviction, or have unique exceptions to the rule. Utah, for example, allows convicted rapists to continue sharing custody if they are living with the mother and the child. Here's a map showing the breakdown of these laws by state (click on each state for more information):

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Obama's NSA Reforms More Transparent Than Expected—But Expectations Were Really Low

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 3:34 PM EST

On Friday, President Obama released his plan to reform the NSA's sweeping surveillance program. Obama offered much praise for the NSA, and he's not ending the agency's controversial bulk collection program, which scoops up information about Americans' telephone calls. But he is making substantial changes to how the program currently runs, indicating that he may be more willing to risk the ire of the intelligence community for the sake of transparency reforms, than he's been in the past. Many oversight questions, though, are still being left to the intelligence community, and the reforms Obama announced on Friday only address a sliver of the surveillance issues raised by the Snowden leaks. Most notably, the president did not address many of the internet-related revelations produced by the Snowden documents. But he tried to offer some real reform to civil libertarians (though hardly meeting the demands for widespread changes) while providing much support to the intelligence community, which will not likely cheer the reforms the president is implementing. 

Bulk Phone Records Collection: Not Going Away, But More Hurdles for the NSA

The biggest change announced on Friday deals with the government's practice of sweeping up Americans' phone records in bulk—a practice that 60 percent of Americans oppose. Privacy advocates had hoped that Obama would take this opportunity to end the program. Instead, he announced that he'll be making some big changes to how it operates. He ordered the attorney general and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to implement a system in which NSA analysts must get approval from the FISA court to search the records. There will also be a new limit on the number of people the NSA can investigate via these records ("two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three.") These are significant changes—ones that could ruffle feathers at the NSA, which has claimed that any changes to the program would undermine its ability to combat terrorism. However, the real test will be whether the judicial review process will be stringent enough to satisfy critics. In the past, the FISA court has been criticized as a "rubber stamp" court. 

Bulk Phone Records Storage: Going Somewhere, No One Knows Where

Obama ordered the intelligence community and the attorney general to come up with a new way to store phone records collected under the program, without having the government hold on to this data. This certainly will create some hurdles for the NSA, but it doesn't mean that the NSA is no longer permitted to collect telephone records. It's just about how they'll be stored. While the intelligence community has to come up with recommendations before March 28, it's entirely unclear when this policy will be implemented, because no third-party outside of phone companies—which have indicated they don't want this responsibility—really exists. 

National Security Letters: Less Secret, Still No Judicial Oversight

Obama is making some modest changes to the process by which the government can use National Security Letters to compel businesses to secretly provide private records to federal investigators. Companies will now be able to disclose these requests—but at some yet-to-be determined point. The specifics are up to the attorney general. Privacy advocates will undoubtedly be disappointed by the fact that Obama is refusing to require judicial review before the government issues these secret orders. 

The Top-Secret Spy Court: More Transparency, But Congress Should Figure It Out 

Obama is asking the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to annually review which decisions made by the FISA court can be declassified. He is also asking Congress to put together a panel of advocates that will provide an independent voice in "significant cases before the court." This is not quite as strong as having an in-house privacy advocate on every case, but it's a serious change. 

Everything else:

And...that's pretty much it. Obama's reforms don't cover reports that the NSA has been working to undermine the internet's encryption—such as by hacking into Google—and don't entail a major overhaul of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which governs PRISM, the program that's been accused of sweeping up internet communications. So it seems that any kind of online surveillance the government may be carrying out, will remain largely intact: "We’d hoped for, and the internet deserves, more," says Alex Fowler, global privacy and policy leader​ at Mozilla. "We’re concerned that the President didn’t address the most glaring reform needs." 

Obama maintains that there have been no alleged abuses of the telephone records collection program, which contradicts what the top-secret spy court has found. But his reforms indicate a greater willingness to reconsider aspects of the NSA's surveillance programs, and they've somewhat exceeded expectations. He does say these reforms are only a start, which might be a small comfort to privacy advocates who are looking for much more.  


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