No one was more outraged by the news coming out of Spokane County around Christmas than Tania Smith. The Stranger had broken the story that Spokane County Judge Paul Bastine had denied 27-year-old Shawnna Hughes a divorce from her abusive husband because Hughes was pregnant ["A Difficult Pregnancy," A. J. Glusman, Dec 23]. And Smith, who had been able to get a divorce when she was pregnant in July 2001, simply couldn't believe another woman was denied the same basic right. As we reported, Judge Bastine used the state's Uniform Parentage Act--which says that paternity must be established after a baby is born--to revoke Hughes' divorce, upholding the county prosecutor's argument that Hughes' baby would have been born in a legal limbo without the financial support of a father. Smith wrote to us voicing her outrage. "When I first read this article, I immediately felt that this judge should be drawn and quartered," she told the Stranger over the phone.

Smith (not her real name), a 40-year-old photographer, had been living in King County and working construction when she sought a divorce from her husband of 11 years. He wasn't abusive, they just grew apart like people do sometimes, and decided together to end their marriage. Smith was seven months pregnant when she finalized her divorce. She and her husband had already been separated for over eight months, and she was living with another man when she got pregnant. After reading about Hughes' predicament--Hughes' husband had served time for domestic violence against Hughes--Smith wrote to The Stranger deriding Judge Bastine's decision.

Smith's case helps highlight an aspect of the story that has yet to be explored, despite the extensive media coverage. (The AP picked up our original story, and it ran everywhere from the Miami Herald to the Chicago Tribune to the L.A. Times culminating with Hughes' January 6 appearance on Good Morning America). It's an aspect of the story that makes the injustice of Hughes' predicament seem even more tragic than the basic facts already allow: Smith was able to get a divorce while pregnant because, unlike Hughes, Smith isn't poor. Smith was pregnant with another man's baby, but Smith lied on her divorce papers and said that she wasn't pregnant. Since Smith wasn't receiving state assistance like Hughes, she was able to get away with her white lie. Hughes didn't have that luxury.

Smith almost certainly would have been caught if she had been on state assistance. When you apply for state assistance you have to check a box stating whether you are pregnant. This was exactly the twist in Hughes' story that brought her pregnancy to light for Spokane County. As soon as Hughes applied for state assistance, the state had an interest in keeping track of who the father was so it would know who to chase for child support. In fact, Terri Sloyer, Hughes' attorney, didn't know Hughes was pregnant until she found out from the county family law prosecutor, who had found the pregnancy box checked on Hughes' application for state assistance. Sloyer then made the court aware of Hughes' condition, but the pro tem commissioner granted the divorce anyway. Hughes was divorced for four days, when the prosecutor called Sloyer and peevishly told her that Hughes would not be permitted to keep her divorce because she was pregnant.

Doug Becker, a Seattle-based family law attorney, agreed that women on state assistance do not have the luxury of lying on their divorce papers. "Women on state assistance are going to have a harder time hiding that they are pregnant," said Becker.

As Craig Hansen, a Bellevue-based family law attorney, wrote on a Yahoo Groups family law chat site, "The state has a real interest in making sure the child gets support from the actual father. The state has an interest that overrides her right to privacy or a divorce until the issue is resolved." In Hughes' case, the state notified her lawyer that she was pregnant; it wasn't the other way around. That would never happen if she hadn't applied for state assistance. Women on welfare are more likely to be denied divorce due to pregnancy than women who are not receiving state assistance.

"It's very unfair," Smith says. "Shawnna was doing all the right things, and she got slapped in the face for it. The lower down you are in societal means, the fewer freedoms you have."

Hughes herself adds: "It's so biased. It's like the state is saying, 'As long as we're helping you out, you have to do what we tell you. And you're not getting divorced.'"

Support The Stranger