WASHINGTON – Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has asked the Supreme Court to review a case that pitted a Baltimore woman’s Fifth Amendment rights against the state’s need to find and protect her neglected child.
The woman, who served just over a year in jail on contempt charges, was released in 2002 after authorities found her son. But the legal fight continued, with Maryland’s highest court ruling in October that the woman could invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to answer a juvenile-court question about the location of her child.
Curran last week petitioned that decision to the Supreme Court, saying that if the Maryland Court of Appeals ruling is allowed to stand it would make it harder to recover missing children, and put endangered children at even greater risk.
“We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will act to preserve the powers of the courts to protect these children,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
The case began in 1996 when the child, who is referred to in court documents as “Ariel G.,” then 5, was removed from his mother’s custody because he was not receiving treatment for his severe asthma. But before the court could hold a “child in need of assistance” hearing, the mother — identified only as “Teresa B.” — fled with the boy.
She was captured in March 2000 and briefly thrown in jail, but released two days later when her son was also found. The mother was quickly re-arrested, however, for interfering with the foster care facility where Ariel had been placed.
The boy was declared a child in need of assistance in September 2000. Sometime later his mother was again released from jail — and in January 2001 she absconded with him a second time.
She was captured again in the summer of 2001, but refused the court’s order to produce the boy, invoking her Fifth Amendment right. That brought a contempt of court charge that landed her in jail, where she stayed for 13 months.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1990 — in another case from Maryland — that a parent could not refuse to produce her missing and abused or neglected child by invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
But Teresa B. said that besides being cited for contempt for refusing to produce the boy, she was also cited for refusing to testify as to where she last saw him, after the court asked her in June 2002. That second contempt citation fell outside the Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling on self-incrimination, she argued.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals and the Maryland Court of Appeals agreed, saying that the second contempt citation, for refusing to answer the court’s question, was unconstitutional.
In his petition to the Supreme Court, Curran argued that the lower courts erred by limiting the Fifth Amendment protections only to courts’ order to produce a missing child and not to testimony as to the child’s location.
Curran’s office said it expects the Supreme Court to announce by April whether it will hear the appeal or not.
The attorney representing Teresa B. could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
But Maryland Human Resources Secretary Christopher McCabe sided with Curran. McCabe said in a statement that judges must be able to insist on an answer to a simple but critical question: “Where did you last see your child?”
-30- CNS 02-08-05