ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Appeals Tuesday overturned four Baltimore Circuit Court decisions to terminate parental rights and place the children in permanent foster care.
In all four cases, originally heard by Judge Martin Welch, the children requested, and were denied, an opportunity to be heard.
The cases will be reheard in Baltimore Circuit Court in light of the high court’s ruling.
All the children were placed under the guardianship of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services after the court found they had been neglected or abused. In an effort to find the children permanent homes, the department asked the court to terminate the parents’ rights to the children, according to the decision.
However, three of the four children said they wanted to continue a relationship with at least one of the parents. Each child requested a hearing before the court made a decision. All were denied, the opinion said.
The social services department argued that “once the parents consent … then the child’s view is irrelevant and the child no longer has standing to be heard on whether termination is in his or her best interests,” the opinion said.
The court ruled that the child is a party to the proceedings and therefore has a right to object to the termination and request a hearing.
“It would not be logical to … make the child a party … only to then deprive the child of that very status when the process turns toward adoption or guardianship with the right to consent to adoption, and seeks to sever the child’s legal relationship with the parents,” the opinion said.
While there are very few of these types of cases, they present a “gray area,” Welch said.
“I think a child has a right to object,” Welch said. But he was unsure if that “child has the right to a full hearing based on the merits” of the case.
He said he welcomes the ruling because it clearly states that a child has a right to a hearing.
In one case, a mother, who said she was unaware that her parental rights were being terminated, asked for a delay so she could seek counsel. Her request was denied. Her son and his lawyer protested the ruling, saying he wanted to be with his mother.
Three social services caseworkers supported the child, saying he should be reunited with his mother. The mother had a full-time job, was attending parenting classes and was near the top of a waiting list for public housing, the opinion said.
A Baltimore City Department of Social Services spokesperson said she could not explain why her department was seeking both termination of parental rights and the reunification of mother and son.
However, Dan Hatcher, a staff attorney for Legal Aid Bureau Inc., who was one of the children’s representatives during the appeal, said there could be several reasons for the disconnect.
“I think what’s going on is that there’s a very strong pressure due to state and federal legislation to speed up adoptions and terminations of parental rights,” he said.
The court also addressed this in its 29-page opinion.
“We are not unmindful that the State of Maryland is under federal mandate to achieve permanent placement for children in foster care and to reduce the time that these children spend `in the system,'” the opinion said. But it said holding a hearing would be a minimal burden on the court.
Another possibility, Hatcher said, could be the system’s structure. A lack of communication between divisions could cause social services to simultaneously recommend reunification and termination because the units making those decisions work separately, he said.
In another case overturned by Tuesday’s decision, a child’s attorney asked that the termination be postponed so she could see if the child would like a hearing. Her request was denied and the termination proceeded.
Hannah Lieberman, Legal Aid advocacy director and lead counsel on the appeal, said the decision was important because it gives children the same rights as parents.
“We think it affects children in foster care in Maryland, who are among the most vulnerable members of our population, the opportunity to be heard before their ties to their parents are severed forever” she said.
C.J. Messerschmidt, who argued the appeal for Baltimore City Department of Social Services, said she couldn’t comment on the opinion because she hadn’t read it yet.