A Louisiana woman who says she was impregnated by her rapist as a teenager 16 years ago—when she was 16 and he was 30—has been denied custody of her child, ABC affiliate WBRZ reports. Weeks ago, a judge granted full custody of Crysta Abelseth’s teen daughter to John Barnes, the man Abelseth has identified as her rapist. The judge has also required her to pay Barnes child support—all because Barnes alleged that Abelseth had given her teenage daughter a cell phone.
Abelseth is now speaking out about the stunning mistreatment she’s faced from the legal system leading up to this nightmare outcome, as well as the routine threats she’s received from Barnes, who she says is flaunting both his “connections in the justice system” and ability to take her child from her. Her story is yet another jarring testament to why so many victims of sexual violence fear and distrust police and the courts.
Abelseth says she met Barnes in 2005 when she thought he would give her a ride home from a local restaurant in Tangipahoa, Louisiana. Instead, he took her to his home, where she says he raped her. Even if the encounter had been consensual, which Abelseth insists it was not, it would have been illegal in Louisiana, because she was under 17.
When Abelseth became pregnant, she let those around her believe she had been impregnated by her then-boyfriend, despite knowing Barnes was the father. In 2006, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, and “everything was fine,” Abelseth told WBRZ—until 2011, when her daughter turned 5 and Barnes learned he might be a father. A DNA test proved Barnes was in fact the father, and Abelseth says a judge granted Barnes 50/50 custody of their daughter.
In 2015, Abelseth filed criminal charges against Barnes for rape, understandably attributing her delayed action to a lack of knowledge of the law. “I thought if I didn’t [report Barnes] the next day, there was nothing I could do about it,” Abelseth said. It wasn’t until a trauma counselor she was speaking to told her she had 30 years to report the incident after turning 18 that she knew her options.
But according to Abelseth, since filing the report nearly a decade ago, nothing has happened: “It was never assigned to a detective, and nothing was ever investigated.” The Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office told WBRZ an investigation of the case remains open, but court records about Barnes, Abelseth, and her charges against him are “mysteriously under seal,” per the outlet.
Police inaction and the local judge’s recent decision to give Barnes custody are all the more suspect, given Barnes’ relationship with local law enforcement: He appears to own Gumbeaux Digital Branding, a web company in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, and his own website lists the Ponchatoula Police as a client. (Ponchatoula is a city in Tangipahoa Parish.) “He’s well connected,” Abelseth told WBRZ of Barnes. “He’s threatened me multiple times, saying he has connections in the justice system, so I better be careful and he can take her away anytime he wants to. I didn’t believe him until it happened.”
Attorneys at the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault (LFASA) say they’ve never seen a case like Abelseth’s before. “It seems pretty straightforward that not only did a crime take place, but as a result of the crime, this person should not have custody of the child,” one LFASA attorney told WBRZ. All of this, again, is happening because Barnes told a judge Abelseth committed the supposedly great infraction of giving her teenage daughter a cell phone—Barnes, in contrast, allegedly raped and impregnated Abelseth when she was 16 and he was 30.
A hearing is scheduled next month to possibly revoke Barnes’ parental rights. But even if the court reverses its previous ruling, the damage will have been done. Abelseth tells WBRZ she’s sinking in legal fees after spending years in conflict with Barnes in the courts, and now has child support payments to make to him, too. She’s been forced to face and endure a prolonged legal battle with the man she’s identified as her rapist, all while parenting as a single mother and rape survivor who’s been picked apart by the legal system. Still, seven years after her report, the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office maintains her case is “still open,” even as Barnes’ DNA and confession indicate he fathered the child—again, when he was 30 and Abelseth was under 17.
The unique depravity of Abelseth’s case speaks to a broader crisis in how rape victims are systematically punished, sometimes criminalized, and, like Abelseth, bankrupted, for coming forward or even just trying to protect themselves or their families. As Jezebel has previously reported, costly defamation suits or even just the threat of them are routinely used to either silence survivors of sexual violence or force them to pay their rapists. Survivors are exponentially more likely to be incarcerated than perpetrators—90 percent of incarcerated women experienced sexual violence before entering the system, a phenomenon known as the sexual assault-to-prison pipeline. Earlier this year, the San Francisco Police Department used DNA evidence collected from a victim’s rape kit to charge her with a separate crime years later. A 2020 survey found 24 percent of victims of intimate partner violence said when they called the police to seek help, they were arrested or threatened with arrest.
Unsurprisingly, given numbers like this and stories like Abelseth’s, sexual assaults are overwhelmingly unreported to law enforcement. Where, after all, are survivors to turn if the legal system that serves them will just hand their child to their rapist and force them to pay him child support—all while local police stand by, twiddling their thumbs and telling local news outlets the case is “still open?”