Washington Divorce Case: Maternity and Marriage
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
When Shawna Hughes decided to end her marriage, she wanted to get out of an abusive relationship. She filed the paperwork in Washington state, and several months later she thought the divorce was final. Then the judge in the case learned that Hughes was pregnant. As Austin Jenkins reports, what the judge did next is the subject of a legal and emotional battle.
AUSTIN JENKINS reporting:
Shawna Hughes, age 27, sits in her lawyer's office, cradling her six-week-old daughter, Jasmine.
(Soundbite of baby noises)
Ms. SHAWNA HUGHES (Mother): I know you're not hungry.
JENKINS: Hughes is thrilled to be a new mom again, but she's unhappy to still be married to a man who's served jail time for physically abusing her. Last November, a judge in Spokane County, Washington, ruled her divorce could not go through because she was pregnant. Citing case law, Judge Paul Bastine said couples in Washington state can't divorce if the wife is expecting. Hughes still can't believe it.
Ms. HUGHES: I still have to say, `God, yeah, I'm married,' when in my heart and whatnot, I'm not.
JENKINS: The judge says he was simply trying to balance the legal rights of everyone involved, husband, wife and child, especially since there was a question of paternity. State law presumes the husband is the father, but Hughes says Jasmine's father is another man. In his ruling, the judge said to allow the divorce would be to, quote, "disestablish paternity before it could be established."
It turns out the state had a financial stake in this pregnancy, too. Since Shawna Hughes is on welfare, the state would want to collect child support from the biological father. But Linda Langston, a family support expert with the Washington State Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, says it's about much more than money.
Ms. LINDA LANGSTON (Washington State Association of Prosecuting Attorneys): We hold up dissolutions over property disputes sometimes for years. So why not something as essential and important as, you know, the biological identity of a child's father?
JENKINS: Hughes' attorney, Terri Sloyer, who's appealing the judge's decision, says to deny divorce because of pregnancy is potentially dangerous.
Ms. TERRI SLOYER (Attorney): You are now putting the very child you're saying you want to protect in harm's way, potentially endangering her life, by requiring her mother to stay married to an abuser, and potentially have this child born into a relationship of domestic violence. So we're more concerned about protecting her name and who she belongs to than we are in protecting her very life. That just seems antithetical to me.
JENKINS: Laura Morgan, a national expert on family law, says it appears this is the first time in the nation a case has like this has gone up on appeal.
Ms. LAURA MORGAN (Family Law Expert): I didn't find any case where the courts denied a divorce on the basis of the wife's pregnancy, and most often the cases were where the wife was pregnant by not her husband, and that was grounds to divorce them even more quickly.
JENKINS: In response to the Shawna Hughes case, the Washington state Legislature just passed a law that says judges cannot deny a divorce because of pregnancy. The law comes too late for Hughes.
Ms. HUGHES: I just want my divorce. I want to go on with my life, raise my kids, you know, not have to worry about being connected to my husband anymore.
JENKINS: Theoretically, the divorce can go through as soon as the results of a paternity test come back, something the state is currently pursuing. But Hughes' attorney says they won't give up their appeal because they want to prove the judge's ruling was in error and a violation of Hughes' constitutional rights. The next court hearing is scheduled for later this month.
For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Washington.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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