A Louisiana woman said a court gave temporary custody of her daughter to the man who raped her when she was 16, a recent development in a yearslong legal battle that advocates say should never have happened.
Crysta Abelseth, 32, claims she was raped by John Barnes when she was under the age of consent in Louisiana, and he was 30. The assault resulted in Abelseth becoming pregnant with her now teenage daughter, she said.
Abseleth said Barnes, who has been confirmed through a paternity test to be the child’s biological father, was given sole custody of her daughter earlier this year amid a court battle that dates back to 2011. She was ordered to pay him child support, court records show.
Initially both had shared custody of the child, who is 15 years old today.
“It’s been consuming my life. It has just drained me emotionally, financially,” Abelseth said. “I’m just exhausted. My quality of life has been minimal, because of having to ‘co-parent’ with this man who raped me and having to see him and speak with him. Anytime she has an event, he’s there. It was very difficult.”
An attorney for Barnes did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Barnes, in an email, directed a reporter to court documents about the case. In court documents, Barnes has denied that he committed felony rape.
Abelseth told WBRZ, a local station in Baton Rouge that first reported her story, that Barnes raped her after offering to take her home following a night out with friends in 2005. She was under the legal age of consent in Louisiana, which is 17. She told the station that she let family and friends believe a boyfriend had impregnated her.
Abelseth said that she reported the rape to police in July 2015, after meeting with a trauma counselor who informed her that she was still within her right to pursue charges against Barnes. She said law enforcement has not acted on the complaint since.
On Thursday, the Tangipahoa Sheriff’s Office said in a statement to WBRZ that the initial complaint "never made it through the proper channels within the department to be assigned for investigation. Therefore, our department absolutely dropped the ball, and we simply must own our mistake.”
“The Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office has reviewed and identified the breakdown in operations relating to the initial complaint filed by the complainant,” Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards said in the statement. “Since that time, enhancements to department procedures have been implemented and measures put in place to ensure reports from the public never go overlooked or mishandled. Especially those cases alleging criminal acts against our youth.”
The department also said Abelseth did not follow up on the matter until April of this year, which Abelseth denies.
“I was calling and leaving messages and wasn’t getting responses,” she said.
The case has now been turned over to the local district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s department said in the statement. No charges have been filed.
Neither the Tangipahoa Sheriff’s Office nor Scott Perrilloux, the district attorney for Louisiana’s 21st District, responded to multiple requests for comment on Abelseth’s case.
In court documents, Abelseth has alleged that Barnes has been physically, mentally and sexually abusive toward their child.
He has denied those allegations in court documents.
In awarding temporary custody to Barnes, Judge Jeffrey Cashe, who has handled the case, said in a court document released Wednesday that Abelseth failed to show in court, that her daughter had suffered “physical or sexual abuse by the father,” and that she had “consistently consented to shared custody since the onset of the case.”
The judge said Abelseth “never alleged any sexual abuse involving the father and the minor child” until Barnes complained in court about the daughter’s alleged cellphone use last year. The judge said there was evidence “supporting the need for immediate protection of the child” because Abelseth had failed to comply with a court order to allow Barnes to review the daughter’s cellphone contents.
Cashe said he found sufficient evidence to show the minor “would suffer certain harm” unless the court issued the temporary custody order. An employee in Cashe’s office declined to comment to WBRZ citing “judicial canons” that prevent the judge from discussing the case, the news outlet reported.
The case is scheduled for trial on July 15.
Sean Cassidy, an attorney and advocate with the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, said the case should be moot because it is against Louisiana law for an abuser to have custody of a child that was the product of the abuse.
“This seems like it’s just ignoring a fundamental fact that would lead anybody to conclude rather quickly that in the very least a statutory rape occurred,” he said. “That should affect any conclusions in a custody matter. It should be the determinative factor to guide a custody determination.”
Instead, Cassidy said those facts seem to either not have been presented correctly or ignored in the case.
According to the court documents, “the court was aware of the age difference between the two when this child was conceived. He was 30 and she was 16. That’s pretty much all you need to know,” Cassidy said.
Louisiana law, he said, mandates that if a child is born of rape, the abuser “shall not have visitation or any form of contact, which obviously would include custody.”
Abelseth said she was initially unaware of her rights and believed she had to go along with the custody case, which “progressively got worse” over the years.
She said the fact that she was the victim of statutory rape had previously come up in the trial because of her age and Barnes’ age at the time she became pregnant.
Cassidy said the court could end up ruling in Abelseth’s favor after a full hearing, but “it’s baffling to me why it hasn’t happened already.”
Abelseth said she believes the court “completely dropped the ball and mishandled my case, and it’s been very unfair for me.”
“There should never have been any rights to the child in the first place. It should never have gotten this far,” Abelseth said.