Last week, a judge in Sanilac County, Michigan, granted joint custody of a woman’s 8-year-old son to the man who raped her nine years earlier when she was an adolescent. The judge also granted the man parental visitation rights and told the woman that she was not allowed to move more than 100 miles away from where the case was filed without either parent’s consent. Since the case was filed in Michigan and she was living in Florida at the time, she was forced to pack up and move.
The judge also provided the woman’s rapist, Christopher Mirasolo, with her home address, according to court documents filed by the woman’s attorney, Rebecca Kiessling. Mirasolo pleaded guilty to the 2008 assault.
“I don’t understand why they thought they needed to give him joint legal custody. He was my rapist,” the woman told CBS News on Wednesday. She asked to be identified only as Tiffany.
The case has prompted a lot of questions, primarily: What the hell, and how could this have happened?
Tiffany popped up on the county’s radar when it noticed that she had been receiving $260 in food stamps over the past three years, and the county decided to find someone to foot that bill, according to a report from the Detroit News.
When asked who the father of her child was, the woman identified Christopher Mirasolo—the man who had kidnapped, raped, and impregnated her nine years earlier when she was 12 years old.
How the woman found herself in the middle of a custody battle with the man who raped her—especially when neither she nor he filed the case—is murky.
According to the Child Support Border Project (which provides information about child custody issues when they involve multiple states), if you’re a single parent receiving public assistance, the state of Michigan may refer your case to prosecuting attorneys. The prosecutor’s office will try to establish paternity and obtain a child custody order for you, when possible. They’ll also try to fix an existing child support order if it’s not enough to cover basic needs and that’s the reason that you’re on public assistance. The prosecutor can also file a court complaint asking for an order establishing paternity on your behalf.
But why would any woman participate in these court proceedings if they might result in her being forced to co-parent with her rapist? Because she had to.
In Michigan, people who receive public assistance are required by law to cooperate with the Office of Child Support and the prosecuting attorney, according to Michigan Department of Health and Human Service’s website. If they refuse to cooperate, their benefits may be reduced or ended entirely.
“I was receiving government assistance, and they told me if I did not tell them who the father was of my child, that they would take [those benefits] away from me,” Tiffany told CBS News’ Tony Dokoupil.
If Michigan can pay less in benefits by tracking down deadbeat dads, it’s in the state’s interest to do that. And in many cases, it might actually help the single mom. Maybe she’s having trouble tracking down the father of her kid or children, or maybe she already has a custody order that the father is dodging. And if that’s the case, she likely can’t afford an attorney to help her. In those situations, the Office of Child Support might be of some help.
But not in cases like Tiffany’s. She thought the request for information was “crazy” and said that just hearing Mirasolo’s name causes “flashbacks” of horrible things. And that’s not surprising: Mirasolo, age 18 at the time of his crime, abducted, raped, and terrorized Tiffany and her companion.
“I was kidnapped for two days. I didn’t know if I was ever going to go home. He threatened to kill me and my best friend if we told anyone,” she told CBS News.
Sanilac County Prosecutor James V. Young said in a statement last week that his office would review internal policies about “how these matters are handled and will be making changes as deemed appropriate,” according to the Detroit News.
That’s something one might say if a person in the prosecutor’s office made a simple mistake. A clerical error perhaps. A failure to review the sex offender registry before supporting joint custody. But this appalling tale indicates that the handling of Tiffany’s case went beyond a minor mistake, according to the woman’s attorney, anti-abortion advocate and self-described “abortion survivor” Rebecca Kiessling.
In objections Kiessling filed protesting the “consent judgment of filiation”—the order establishing paternity which Probate Judge Gregory S. Ross wrote was “based solely on consent”—Kiessling noted that Tiffany never consented to anything. No one ever conferred with Tiffany about the consent judgment. Tiffany never consented to the consent judgment. Tiffany wasn’t even given a chance to get a lawyer.
What’s more, the consent judgment went beyond what Michigan law requires, according to the court documents Kiessling filed.
Under Michigan’s Paternity Act, an order of filiation must include a finding of paternity and provide for child support and any necessary expenses connected to the mother’s pregnancy and the birth of the child.
But the consent judgment that Judge Ross entered “awarded joint legal custody, restricted the child’s domicile and residence, granted parenting time, disclosed Plaintiff’s address to Defendant, and ordered payment of a birth record fee (presumably to place Defendant’s name on the birth certificate).” It’s an egregious offense that compounds Tiffany’s trauma—especially when you consider how the legal system failed Tiffany in the first place.
Mirasolo was arrested a month after the assault when Tiffany was pregnant, Kiessling told Detroit News. The Salinac County prosecutor’s office initially charged Mirasolo with attempted second-degree criminal sexual conduct when the allegations supported a charge of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, which would have landed him in jail for at least 25 years. In the end, the prosecutor offered Mirasolo a plea deal for attempted third–degree criminal sexual conduct, and Mirasolo accepted it.
The plea deal was quickly executed before her client’s baby was born, Kiessling says, so that DNA—which would have confirmed that the assault was not an “attempt”—could not be obtained to prove penetration at trial.
A review of the Michigan Penal Code section on criminal sexual conduct suggests that Mirasolo got a pretty sweet deal. First-degree felony rape in Michigan is a sexual act involving penetration and one of several situations, including a victim under the age of 13 and the use of physical force or violence to overcome the victim.
But instead of facing “imprisonment for life or any term of years, but not less than 25 years”—again, according to the Michigan Penal Code—and a lifetime on the state’s sex offender registry, Mirasolo was sentenced to one year in county jail. Ultimately, he didn’t even serve that paltry sentence. After serving only six-and-a-half months, he was released early so that he could care for his sick mother, according to Kiessling.
Two years later, Mirasolo would go on to sexually assault another minor. Mirasolo pled no contest to two counts of criminal sexual assault and served four years for that crime, according to court documents.
Judge Ross has since stayed the order, and Kiessling is negotiating a settlement with Mirasolo’s attorney, according to CBS News. It’s likely that Tiffany will get sole custody, as Mirasolo doesn’t even want custody of the child. And Michigan law permits an order of filiation—like the one issued in Tiffany’s case—to be set aside since “the child was conceived as a result of nonconsensual sexual penetration.”
But the order should never have been issued in the first place. Kiessling has said that she thinks the judge was “blindsided”—by whom she doesn’t say—and didn’t know all that he needed to know.
A Lawyer With a Cause of Her Own
That Kiessling has admirably represented her client’s interests is laudable.
But she is more than a white-hat family law attorney. She’s a well-known anti-abortion activist and speaker who calls herself an abortion survivor because she was conceived in rape and her mother unsuccessfully sought an abortion twice. She thinks that women who are raped should be forced to carry those pregnancies to term, and she advocates for that using her personal circumstance as a jumping-off point. She presupposes that her personal circumstances and her mother’s decision should inform the decision of every pregnant rape survivor.
And that’s wrong.
I respect what she does for the survivors of rape and their children, but every pregnant rape survivor should have the choice to terminate the pregnancy or carry it to term. And using so-called abortion survivors as an emotional ploy to strip human rights from rape survivors is disturbing.
Kiessling recounts the story of her life on her website, but her tale rests on a false claim—that pro-choice advocates think the lives of so-called abortion survivors are worthless:
Please understand that whenever you identify yourself as being “pro-choice,” or whenever you make that exception for rape, what that really translates into is you being able to stand before me, look me in the eye, and say to me, “I think your mother should have been able to abort you.”
Well, yeah. But that’s not specific to Kiessling as a person conceived in rape. That’s the case for everyone! The fact that I think that every person’s mother should have been able to abort them doesn’t say much about how I feel about any individual person. But it says everything about how sacred I believe choice is.
So, Ms. Kiessling: Nobody is wishing you were dead. Nobody is saying, “I think your mother should have aborted you.” They’re saying your mother should have had the choice. And frankly, it’s odd to be upset about something that never came to be and that you’d be unaware of if it actually happened. You wouldn’t be angry about being aborted because you wouldn’t exist.
Sincere though she may be, Kiessling’s entire philosophy is built on a straw man she erected, the emotional but ultimately illogical arguments she uses as its foundation, and junk science.
Kiessling justifies pushing her beliefs that women who are raped should be forced to carry to term by promoting dangerous junk social science from the likes of David Reardon, who is featured in Rewire’s False Witnesses galleries for peddling exactly the same distortions that Kiessling parrots. When she says “most women who become pregnant out of sexual assault do not want an abortion and are in fact worse-off after an abortion,” that’s David Reardon talking—a man who received a “PhD.” in bioethics from Pacific Western University-Hawaii (PWU), a school that was featured in a 2004 CBS News story about “diploma mills” that crank out dubious degrees; PWU shut down in 2006 after federal and state investigations.
Look, I don’t mean to harsh Ms. Kiessling’s mellow. I admire that she is representing women who are being ignored by the system. I am a reproductive justice advocate, which means I believe women should be able to do whatever the hell they want when it comes to choosing to raise a family or not raise a family. We as a society owe it to pregnant people to make this country as friendly a birthing environment as possible. That means universal health care, affordable child care, food assistance, a living wage, cleaning up the environment, ending police brutality, providing birth control and access to safe abortion care, and a whole host of other social justice issues that fall under the reproductive justice umbrella.
I also believe, as Kiessling does, that no woman should be forced to co-parent or have any dealings with her rapist.
But it is equally true that no woman should be forced to bear her rapist’s child if she doesn’t want to. No woman should be forced to bear a child she doesn’t want.
And Kiessling’s efforts to leverage her story into a universal truth about how pregnancy stemming from rape should be addressed notwithstanding, this isn’t about Rebecca Kiessling. It’s about human rights.
And when it comes to human rights, one woman’s story is just that: her story.