ANNAPOLIS- Maryland legislators must soon decide if an effort to help a few families avoid protracted and emotionally draining court battles is worth passing a law eliminating the custody and visitation rights of a parent convicted of the murder of an immediate family member.
In a tearful appeal to members of the House Judiciary Committee Thursday, a Westminster couple who have spent months trying to keep their grandson from his convict mother urged committee members to approve the proposed law.
Twin bills in the House of Delegates and Senate would bar a parent convicted of the first or second-degree murder of the other parent, another one of their children or another family member living in the household from obtaining child custody or visiting their child unsupervised.
Raymond and Brenda Shipley adopted their grandson, Carter Scott Shipley, 2, after their still-pregnant daughter-in-law, Melissa Baumgardner Shipley, hired a man to kill her husband, Scott Edward Shipley, in November 2002. In January 2004, Melissa Shipley was sentenced to life without parole on a first-degree murder charge.
The Shipleys said it took them a year-and-a-half to obtain a court order that kept Carter’s maternal grandparents from taking him to visit his mother at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.
“We know the time would have been shorter if there had been a law to protect this innocent little victim,” Brenda Shipley told the committee.
Versions of the proposed law have been introduced in both the House of Delegates and the Senate. The Senate passed its version of the bill Thursday in a 47-0 vote.
Opponents of the legislation say that the bill unnecessarily takes power out of the hands of the state’s judges when it comes to what even supporters of the bill say is a rare occurrence.
“It does not take into consideration the child’s relationship to the parent,” said Vanita Taylor, a chief attorney in the Child in Need of Assistance Division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. “It takes away the discretion of the court.”
She also said that there is little evidence to show that visiting an incarcerated parent is bad for a child.
Sen. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll, who sponsored the Senate bill, said in an interview that the bill would still allow court approval of supervised visitation that, the bill says, must assure “the safety and the physiological, psychological and emotional well-being of the child.”
“It’s not an all-out mandate,” Haines said. “It still allows the court some discretion.” At the Judiciary hearing, legislators registered a few problems with the bill’s provisions, saying that it should possibly be amended to include manslaughter and that the definition of family should be limited to immediate family.