TANGIPAHOA PARISH, La. — A mother is fighting to get custody of her teenage daughter back after a Tangipahoa Parish judge took her away, granting sole custody to the girl’s father in March. But an attorney for the mother says he should never have custody of the girl because she was conceived through rape.
When Crysta Abelseth was 16, she met John Barnes at a bar while out with a group of friends. Barnes was 30 at the time. He said he would take her home the night they met.
“Once we got into his vehicle, he did not drive me home. He drove me to his house. And once we got there, got inside, I lay down on the couch. And he proceeded to rape me,” Abelseth said.
Abelseth would soon discover she was pregnant and she told people it was her boyfriend’s baby.
“I was ashamed and I didn't want anyone to know what happened because I was so young and naive and didn't understand that this was so, so wrong,” Abelseth said.
Fast forward five years and Barnes discovered he might be the biological father. They took a DNA test that confirmed with 99.97 percent probability that he was the father.
Barnes asked for visitation and shared custody and he got it. Abelseth said she felt she had no choice but to agree to allow him to be a part of her child’s life, since he was the biological father.
“My mental health was waning because of the traumatic event and then having to see him every day all, you know, all the time, because he's in my child's life now and I just was having trouble coping. So, I went to see a trauma counselor and basically, he told me that, no, you have plenty of time. Time has not run out. You have 30 years after you turn 18,” Abelseth recalled.
So, she filed a complaint against Barnes for simple rape with the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office in 2015. She still has the business card from Lt. Blane Sanders with the Criminal Investigations Division, who took the report.
But Sheriff Daniel Edwards said this week Abelseth’s complaint was never assigned to a detective and it ended up shelved for seven years.
“Thank God for the trauma counselor who said, okay, you still have a right to press charges or to file charges against this individual, the perpetrator,” said Stacie Triche, a friend and advocate with the Saveliv35 Foundation. “Then the justice system failed her.”
Edwards admitted his office dropped the ball.
“You would certainly have, at a minimum, a carnal knowledge situation that that should have been realized by the deputy who took the report and it should have been assigned an actual detective at that time,” Edwards told Action News 17, a local cable channel.
While the rape report sat untouched, the custody battle over the child -- now 15-years-old -- escalated. It got to the point that a year ago they started fighting in court over whether she could have a cell phone.
Citing social media posts and pictures the child was sharing with the phone, Judge Jeffrey Cashe prohibited the parents from giving the child a phone. But March 21, 2022, Barnes filed for sole custody, alleging Abelseth had once again given the teen a phone, arguing she should be held in contempt for violating the court’s order.
Abelselth's attorney, Brenda Braud, explained that the judge, “Signed the order ex parte without a hearing based on allegations by John Barnes that Crysta was in contempt of court, not following the judge's orders, by giving the girl a cell phone."
It’s an accusation Abelseth denies. Cashe’s Order and Reasons filed into the court record after news of the situation broke reads, based on the allegations made by Barnes, “The court found sufficient evidence to show that a minor child would suffer certain harm.”
So, instead of taking the phone, the judge took the child away from her mother and placed her with her father.
Braud has since filed a motion to give Abelseth sole custody, based on Louisiana’s law that allows rape victims to legally deny visitation or custody to a perpetrator if the child resulted from a rape.
“For a rape victim to be dragged through the court system for ten years when the father, who is the perpetrator, should have never been given custody of the child. Makes absolutely no sense. It makes no sense,” Triche said.
After she and her attorney, Braud, went back to the Sheriff’s Office and brought her birth certificate, the DNA results and evidence of Barnes’ Date of Birth to investigators seven years after filing the first complaint, the TPSO assigned the case to a detective. On May 15, 2022, investigators turned their findings over to the Tangipahoa Parish District Attorney for prosecution.
Barnes’ attorney did not respond to a request for comment on this story.