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Md. Court of Appeals: Child’s best interests are ‘transcendent’

Calling a child’s best interests “transcendent,” Maryland’s top court has ordered a Baltimore juvenile court to reconsider its decision allowing a mother with a history of neglect to retain parental rights.

The Court of Appeals said the lower court “erroneously” focused on the mother’s parental rights rather than the right of her daughter, who was flourishing in the care of foster parents who want to adopt her. On remand, the Baltimore City Circuit Court, sitting as a juvenile court, should examine if the interests of the child would be best served by terminating the rights of her mother, the high court said.

The court’s ruling comes amid what it called confusion among judges regarding whether the rights of the child or the parent are paramount in Termination of Parental Rights cases. This confusion was caused by the state high court’s statement in a 2007 decision that “no further inquiry” by a judge is necessary if the parent is fit to care for the child and no exceptional circumstances exist to warrant a child being removed from the parent, the court said.

The circuit court interpreted the “no further inquiry” language, from In re Adoption/Guardianship of Rashawn H. and Tyrese H., as indicating that the focus of TPR cases should be on the parent, not the child.

But the Court of Appeals said its rulings show the paramount consideration is the best interest of the child, and that a parent’s fitness and the circumstances of the parental relationship are merely factors in the ultimate decision.

“Examination of these cases, spanning 33 years of Maryland jurisprudence on the topic, reveals that despite occasional rhetoric suggesting otherwise, the child’s best interest has always been the transcendent standard in adoption, third-party custody cases, and TPR proceedings,” Judge Sally D. Adkins wrote in the high court’s majority opinion.

Joan Little, who pressed the child’s case before the high court, praised the decision as affirming the rights of children in TPR proceedings.

“This case really restated in a resounding way that the standard is the best interest of the child and the court should not be looking through the lens of the parents,” said Little, chief attorney of Legal Aid Bureau Inc.’s child advocacy unit in Baltimore.

Assistant Maryland Public Defender Brian L. Zavin, who represented the mother at the high court, did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

Little brought the high-court appeal after the circuit court and the Court of Special Appeals rejected a January 2008 petition from Baltimore’s Department of Social Services to terminate the mother’s parental rights.

The daughter, identified in court papers as Ta’Niya C., was deemed a Child in Need of Assistance in February 2005 based on complaints of neglect by her mother, identified as Vanetta L. The father did not challenge the petition terminating his parental rights.

Between October 2004 and January 2007, Vanetta requested only two visits with her daughter and saw her only three times between November 2006 and January 2008, according to DSS. The mother also failed to comply with a department requirement that she maintain stable housing and hold down a job, DSS added.

The mother did complete a DSS-required parenting class, the agency said.

Ta’Niya, age 7, now lives with loving foster parents who cannot adopt her because the lower courts preserved the mother’s parental rights, Little said. The attorney added that she hopes to show the circuit court that removing the mother’s parental rights and permitting the adoption is in Ta’Niya’s best interest.

“She simply views the people she lives with as her parents,” Little said. “She articulates that very strongly.”

When the case was last in circuit court, Judge Dennis M. McHugh said a presumption exists in favor of preserving parental rights. McHugh said DSS failed to rebut that presumption by proving with “clear and convincing evidence” that the mother was unfit or that “exceptional circumstances” made continuation of parental relations detrimental to the child’s best interest.

As evidence of Vanetta’s fitness, McHugh noted the agency was not challenging the mother’s right to be a parent to her older daughter Jamiara.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals agreed with McHugh, prompting Little’s appeal.

The Court of Appeals, in sending the case back for review, said McHugh’s decision improperly focused on Vanetta and her relationship with Jamiara, not on Ta’Niya and her lack of emotional ties to her mother.

“[A] parent may, for example, have regular and frequent contact with one child, but not the other, and have varying degrees of success in completion of different [DSS] service agreements with respect to each child,” Adkins wrote. “[T]he ultimate focus of the juvenile court’s inquiry must be on the child’s best interest.”

Adkins was joined in her opinion by Judges Lynne A. Battaglia, Mary Ellen Barbera and John C. Eldridge, a retired jurist who was sitting in by special assignment for Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

Bell did not state publicly why he recused himself from the case.

Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr., in a concurring opinion, said the majority should have made clear that parents in TPR cases enter court with a “rebuttable presumption” that their parental rights should be preserved.

Courts must “give due weight to the rebuttable presumption that a child’s best interests are served by not sundering or interfering with the parental role, unless a judge is persuaded that the presumption is overcome by a quantum of persuasive evidence demonstrating that the parent(s) is/are unfit or that exceptional circumstances exist that render parental control and affiliation no longer in the best interest of the child(ren),” Harrell wrote.

Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. joined Harrell’s concurrence.

Judge Clayton Greene Jr. joined in the court’s judgment only.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

In Re: Adoption/Guardianship of Ta’Niya C., CA No. 133, Sept. Term 2009. Reported. Opinion by Adkins, J. Filed Nov. 22, 2010.

Issue:

Did the trial judge err in favoring parental rights over a “best interest of the child” standard in a Termination of Parental Rights case?

Holding:

Yes; The best interest of the child is the “transcendent” consideration in TPR cases.

Counsel:

Kelly E. James and Joan Little for petitioner; Brian L. Zavin for respondent.

RecordFax # 10-1122-00 (41 pages).