Family law cases regarding child custody frequently turn on the best interests of the child. While parents have a Fourteenth Amendment right to raise their children without the State’s interference, this isn’t an absolute right. It must be balanced against society’s responsibility towards the child’s welfare.
In Maryland, the court designates children who are abused or neglected by their parents or have a disability that their parents are not able to attend to, social services may ask the juvenile court to designate them “children in need of assistance” or “CINA”. The court must make factual findings as to whether the allegations of social services are correct and determine a course of action to protect the child.
If the child is to be placed outside the home, within 11 months, the court must determine what the permanent plan for the child is. This could be reunification, but it could also be another permanent living situation such as adoption, if that is in the child’s best interests. While Maryland prefers family reunification, it is not always possible.
In a recent case, two girls with different fathers were removed from their mother’s care on the basis that she left them alone and neglected them. One was 9 years old and the other was 7 months old. Teachers, administrators, and a therapist testified that the 9 year old was experiencing behavioral problems and ongoing trauma.
The girls were placed in foster care for a year before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed the juvenile court’s CINA designation of the younger girls and their placement.
The older girl at one point reported that her mother beat her with a belt and closed fist. At another point she reported her mother had ideas that were consistent with paranoia.
The juvenile court again designated the younger girl as a CINA. Eventually, the court decided to allow the girls to be adopted, considering their positive foster care experiences and the mother’s reported refusal to cooperate, even to provide a correct address for a home visit. The girls had also expressed an interest in adoption and the older girl had expressed concern for her mother’s mental health.
The mother appealed this ruling to the Court of Special Appeals. While the appeal was pending, the juvenile court ordered that the younger girl’s permanency plan would not be adoption, but instead reunification with her father.
The appellate court considered whether the juvenile court was allowed to consider events that happened during the months that the children had spent in foster care under the first order that had been reversed by the Court of Special Appeals.
The mother argued that the juvenile court should not have considered the weak bond her daughters had with her, because she attributed that to the time they were out of her custody. The Court of Special Appeals considered this argument speculative, reasoning that had the girls remained in her care, their bond might have deteriorated further. Moreover, the mother had acted in ways that resulted in a lessened bond, such as missing visits and arriving late and acting distracted or failing to interact with the kids. The appellate court also considered the emotional attachment the girls had to their foster mother as a result of time they were placed away from their mother under the initial order that was reversed.
In this case, the appellate court believed that the juvenile court had looked for evidence that the mother had improved her behavior and found it lacking. It affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
If you are dealing with child custody issues where the best interests of your child are at stake, you should retain an experienced and knowledgeable family law attorney to help you. Contact Anthony Fatemi at