ANNAPOLIS – Child custody disputes are often lengthy, expensive and emotional proceedings, but when they lead to kidnapping and custody violations, Maryland law is unclear, lawmakers said Tuesday.
Maryland law fails to define which court has jurisdiction when a child is taken across state lines, lengthening the dispute, said Sen. Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery, at a hearing on a bill to clarify state law.
Grosfeld, a family law attorney, said her bill will “better protect children who are kidnapped by parents and taken out of state.”
Her bill will align Maryland law with the federal statute, just as laws are aligned in Delaware, Virginia, Washington and 32 other states, Grosfeld said.
Those adjacent jurisdictions “are the most common places to run to because they’re convenient,” Grosfeld said.
The Maryland Judiciary, represented at the bill hearing by Pamela Cordullo Ortiz, said the legislation will stabilize families by clarifying the law.
“It will deter parental kidnapping,” Ortiz said.
The Maryland Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act will save custodial parents time and thousands of dollars by clearly defining which state has jurisdiction in a custody dispute or parental kidnapping case, Grosfeld said.
It certainly could have helped clear up one of attorney Erin Darner Gable’s pending cases, she said.
In that case, a grandmother refused to return her grandchild to the mother after an extended visit, and the mother charged her with kidnapping.
Despite an existing custody arrangement between the child’s parents in their home state, the child’s mother was not given sufficient notice to attend the Maryland custody hearing and emergency custody was granted to the grandmother, said Gable, who declined to identify the parties because the case is ongoing.
“The statute should reflect the case law,” Gable said, because most of these cases are eventually interpreted according to the federal statute that grants jurisdiction in the home state when a custody arrangement already exists there.
Victims of domestic violence also have a new safeguard in the law when they are fleeing abusive situations, said Cynthia Golomb, legislative counsel for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
The proposal also would define scenarios where the child “is subjected to or threatened with mistreatment or abuse,” allowing domestic violence sufferers to use the information in court in emergency situations, Golomb said.
“It’s a safe haven,” Golomb said.
A national study by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimated that 203,900 children were victims of family abduction in 1999. More than half of those children were abducted by their biological father and 25 percent were abducted by their biological mother.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which relies on voluntary reporting, lists 22 pending family abduction cases in Maryland on its Web site.