"The main thing they have against me is that I’m teaching my daughter forgiveness," says Deborah Rabideau, explaining why she lost custody of her daughter to the state of Massachusetts a year ago. "One of the issues in the court documents is whether or not I can be a fit mother while forgiving my husband," she said.
The husband Rabideau is trying to forgive is serving a 15-year sentence for sexually abusing their young daughter. The Massachusetts Department of Social Services took the little girl from her mother’s custody after they found out that Rabideau, an evangelical Christian, wanted her daughter to pray for and forgive her father and had taken the child to visit her father in prison.
But the Massachusetts Department of Social Services says Rabideau's brand of "forgiveness" requires her daughter to take responsibility for the role she played in the sexual act – an offensive, if not illegal, position.
"One can be deeply concerned about a child who is learning she was responsible," said Harry Spence, Massachusetts' DSS commissioner. "The law and culture are absolutely clear. In sexual abuse, one cannot blame the child...adults are wholly responsible."
Spence said leaving a sexually abused child with the mother, even if the predator is removed from the home, can create problems. The Rabideau case, he said, "raises (the issue) of what beliefs and perceptions that allowed this behavior to occur."
In her own defense, Rabideau said she is trying to understand how she can minimize the long-term impact that abuse has on her daughter’s life. "There’s no excuse for what he did and I will not excuse what he did," she said.
But after extensive counseling, Rabideau believed the next step in healing was forgiveness. She thought the best way to help her daughter cope with the trauma was to help her put her anger behind her.
"For her not to forgive him will devastate and ruin her life much more than it will ruin his," she said.
Her daughter "wanted to see her father desperately," Rabideau said, and counselors the family was seeing recommended the visits. "If my daughter didn’t want anything to do with her Dad, I wouldn’t have pushed her," she said.
Rabideau and her attorney, Greg Hession, believe the state is making an issue of her religious beliefs in the custody dispute, something tantamount to religious persecution.
It's a charge that Spence does not deny.
"These are complicated issues couched in religious conviction," Spence said, arguing that parents' religious rights end when their actions endanger the child.
"We try to protect and honor the religious practices of the parents...but your child is not your chattel. You may not use it as you choose," Spence said. "Children have a constitutional right not to be abused," he said.
Rabideau said she had no reason to suspect the state would react as it did, and even consulted with her attorney before taking her daughter to visit her father.
She and her daughter had made five visits to the prison over a period of weeks. When she returned for a sixth, prison officials locked her out and said the visits were a public safety risk. TK weeks later, Rabideau said state troopers stormed her house without warning, grabbed her daughter and threw the child into a van.
"She was clutching, she was screaming," Rabideau said. "She almost vomited from the violent force with which they threw her into the van," she said. That same day, Rabideau received a notice from the prison informing her officially that she could no longer visit the facility with her daughter.
Rabideau says she would have stopped the visits immediately had she known she was jeopardizing her custody, but that she never received so much as a warning from the state. "All they had to do was call her and tell her not to do it," Hession said.
For the past year, Rabideau has been allowed one 2-hour visit a month with her daughter, who remains in foster care. The state of Massachusetts has recommended that her parental rights be terminated, a legal action that means Rabideau will lose her daughter permanently and the child will become eligible to be adopted.
A judge is expected to rule in the case within the next two to three months.