ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Appeals Thursday limited the rights of parents who file late objections when the state attempts to gain custody of their children.
The ruling, written by Judge Alan J. Wilner and issued only a month after the case was heard, said state circuit courts could not consider parents’ objections to loss of custody if those parents failed to object by a specified deadline.
“This is a really important need for children,” said Catherine Shultz, assistant attorney general. “The children need and are entitled to certainty and permanency about who will be their family in their lives.”
The public defender’s office, which represented the parents in the appeal, declined to comment.
The opinion stems from five cases, four in Baltimore and one in Montgomery County, in which the local departments of social services sought guardianship of a child. In each case, the parents failed to write an objection to the state’s attempt to gain custody of their children before a specified deadline.
The state filed a motion asking the Court of Appeals to hear the five cases in a single appeal. The court agreed, meaning the matter skipped the Court of Special Appeals.
“The issue is likely to recur frequently; it involves an important and dramatic conflict between the government… and the most fundamental rights of individual citizens as parents,” Wilner’s opinion said.
The opinion said allowing circuit courts to hear late-filed objections could interrupt departments of social services in placing children with adoptive parents.
Said Shultz: “This case will make it very clear about when deadlines must be met, so that cases won’t continue and continue.”
Whenever the state attempts to gain custody of a child, the local department of social services issues an order to the parents. If the parents object, they must complete and sign an attached form and mail it to the department by the specified date.
Parents who voluntarily give up custody of their children have 30 days to revoke that consent — a point that was not in contention in any of the five cases.
However, the Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that those who simply don’t respond to the social services deadline give the state their implied consent. And that consent, the court said, cannot be revoked.
In the Montgomery County case, for instance, the mother was informed while her children were in foster care that the state intended to seek custody. She had about a month in which to object — a June deadline — but did not file until November, when she went to Montgomery County Circuit to regain custody. That court threw out her case, given the missed deadline.
The mother later returned to circuit court, where her attorney argued that the state hadn’t notified her of her right to revoke her consent or of any proceedings regarding her children once her custody was lost.
She won that case, and the court permitted the return of her two boys pending the outcome of an appeal by the department of social services.
But the Court of Appeals ruled that the state didn’t have to notify the mother of any proceedings once the objection deadline had passed.
At the appeal, the defense also argued that the mother’s due process and equal protection rights to raise her children were violated when the state did not allow a late objection.
But the Court of Appeals disagreed, saying she had plenty of opportunities and notification to object on time.
The notice to parents that the state intends to take custody, the court observed, “explains in plain, simple language, the right to object, how, where and when to file notice of objection and the consequences of not filing one within the time allowed.” The court further noted that “all the parent need do is to sign [the notice of objection], print on it his or her name, address and telephone number, and mail or deliver it to the address shown on that order.” -30-