Biology wins in custody battle
U.S. BRIEFS | Oklahoma judge rejects parental rights plea from woman’s lesbian partner
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An Oklahoma County judge’s controversial Feb. 13 ruling awarded parental rights to a sperm donor over the objections of the mother’s former lesbian partner. The donor, Harlan Vaughn, had entered into a donor agreement with the child’s mother, Rebekah Wilson, in 2018. At the time, Wilson was dating—and later married—a woman, Kris Williams. When Wilson gave birth to the boy in August 2019, she and Williams were both listed as mothers on the baby’s birth certificate. They raised him for about two years, then divorced. Wilson and the boy moved in with Vaughn in November 2021, and Vaughn subsequently filed for custody. Judge Lynne McGuire ruled that Williams had no parental rights according to Oklahoma’s Uniform Parentage Act, since she neither birthed nor adopted the child. Williams’ attorney, Robyn Hopkins, told KFOR News she is appealing the ruling to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, given the complicated circumstances. “It’s the first kind of case with these facts,” Hopkins said. —Elizabeth Russell
A ring of organized criminals in Southern California is stealing state aid for the lowest-income Californians—$2.9 million in Los Angeles County in January alone, a one-month record. The scheme involves cloning recipients’ Electronic Benefits Transfer cards and withdrawing their allotted monthly aid from ATM machines within minutes or hours of the state depositing benefits onto the cards, according to the Los Angeles Times. Robbers have targeted food stamps, too—also deposited on EBT cards. Deputy District Attorney Alex Karkanen told the Times that LA County is “hemorrhaging money” to the scheme. A proposal to make EBT cards more secure could take up to 30 months to implement. —Mary Jackson
The Ohio Controlling Board on Feb. 6 approved a $1.3 million settlement payment for former prison inmate Ralph Smith, who served 21 years behind bars for a crime that might never have happened. Smith was one of two black men accused of an alleged armed home robbery in 2000, and at age 24, he received a 67-year sentence. But a police report was withheld from the trial that noted first responders at the crime scene found no footprints or tire tracks in the recently fallen snow, which suggests the incident could have been staged. In 2020, Smith contacted a lawyer who succeeded in arranging a retrial. But rather than retry the case, a prosecutor dropped the charges, leading to Smith’s release in 2021. —Bekah McCallum
The Federal Bureau of Prisons said in February it would close a Special Management Unit of its penitentiary in Thomson, moving hundreds of inmates after frequent reports of violence and maltreatment there. The high-security unit has housed hundreds of the bureau’s most dangerous inmates, and Thomson Penitentiary has earned a reputation as one of the deadliest federal prisons. An investigation by NPR and the Marshall Project uncovered five suspected homicides and two suspected suicides at Thomson since 2019 and documented prison conditions that fueled violence. Guards confined volatile inmates together in tiny cells for nearly 24 hours a day. Inmates gained tell-tale scars from hours or days spent in four-point restraints. Previously, the Special Management Unit was hosted at Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, where it also drew fire for violence and shackling. The recent report renewed concerns over special units and the broader culture of the Bureau of Prisons. It was unclear where the bureau was moving the inmates. —Addie Offereins
Officials at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College apologized on Feb. 17 after administrators used an artificial intelligence program to write a condolence email to students. The college’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion sent the condolence letter in response to the Feb. 13 shooting at Michigan State University. The message called on students and staff to promote a culture of inclusivity on Peabody’s campus, and ended with a line saying the email had been paraphrased using ChatGPT. Later, Nicole Joseph, the associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion, apologized and said that relying on the AI software was “poor judgment.” The incident drew criticism from students who said using a chatbot was disrespectful to victims of gun violence. A university spokesperson told The Vanderbilt Hustler that the school does not use ChatGPT or other AI programs to generate messages. —Lauren Canterberry
Actions have consequences, and sometimes children bear the brunt of them. In January, former Mississippi state health officer Thomas Dobbs noted a shocking 900 percent increase in syphilis cases in newborn babies: Between 2016 and 2021, the number of Mississippi babies treated for the disease grew from 10 to 102. Dobbs blamed the state’s system of prenatal care, but others fear the increase could be part of a larger trend. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says congenital syphilis cases have more than tripled nationally in recent years. The bacterial infection is passed from mother to child during pregnancy, and left untreated, it can cause abnormalities or stillbirth. Congenital syphilis is preventable if the mother receives a series of penicillin shots at least a month before giving birth. While the CDC also reported a national increase in other reportable sexually transmitted diseases, only Nevada outranks Mississippi in its number of per-population syphilis cases. —Kim Henderson
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