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Appeals court backs parents’ rights in visitation case

The parents’ right to control who visits their children applies even to the children’s siblings, the Court of Special Appeals has held.

In an opinion issued late Monday, the court reversed a ruling that let a 19-year-old woman, who was a minor and in foster care when the trial started, visit her half-brothers, who live with her father and stepmother.

“In my opinion, being denied access to a sibling is cruel and unusual,” said the woman’s attorney, Constance J. Ridgway of Wakefield & Ridgway P.A. in Woodstock.

The court said parents have the right to decide the care, custody and control of their children and the court could therefore not impose a third-party visitation against their wishes. The court also said the girl failed to prove there would be a “significant deleterious effect” if she could not visit her siblings.

“I think it’s a continuation of the court’s ongoing trend to strengthen the fundamental rights of parents to control the upbringing of their children,” said the father and stepmother’s attorney Samantha Z. Smith, of Timchula & Smith P.A. in Westminster.

Victoria C., who is now 19, entered the custody of the Carroll County Department of Social Services because of a contentious relationship with her father, who refused to let her live in his house.

Victoria’s mother is dead, and her father remarried in 2005. Her father and stepmother have two boys — a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old. Victoria lived with the family until 2009, when she went to live with an aunt in Texas after an abuse allegation against her father was sustained.

Victoria returned after a year and entered social services. When Victoria sought visitation rights with her siblings, her father and stepmother opposed her, even though they agreed that Victoria and their sons shared “a loving and caring relationship” when they lived together, according to court documents.

Though Victoria had not kept in contact with her siblings while in Texas, she told the court she would like to see them.

“It has been like a hold, kind of,” she told the court. “I just — I miss them. They were an entire section of my life.”

Richard P. Barth, dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who has written about foster care dynamics and child abuse and neglect, said in an interview that it is valuable for foster children to stay connected to family, but that has to be balanced with the potential harm that could come with visitation.

“Siblings tend to appreciate each other and give each other value and support,” Barth said. “If you move to a new school where you don’t know anybody and are best trying to understand how to get along in a foster care environment with different rules and different kids, there are some stress-relieving properties of being with someone who understands you and the special person you are.”

Victoria’s father and stepmother, however, testified in court that they thought her visitation would be “emotionally damaging” to the boys because of Victoria’s strained relationship with her father.

“Throughout this case, my clients took the approach that the decision of whether a sibling visits or not should be their decision, and it was not appropriate for the court to order visitation over their objections,” Smith said. “That was the argument we made at every level.”

Barth said parents have the fundamental right to make decisions about their kids’ lives.

“Parents of minor children get to decide whether their kids hang out with siblings or non-siblings or go to movies or whether get their hair cut or what medical care to get them,” Barth said.

Victoria turned 18 in August 2011, and the Circuit Court for Carroll County heard arguments in the case in September 2011. Victoria left foster care in October 2011 before the court made its decision in February 2012, granting Victoria supervised visitation with her two younger brothers. The father and stepmother filed an appeal in March.

The Court of Special Appeals said the court was not allowed to impose third-party visitation that infringes upon parents’ right to make decisions about the care of their children.

Victoria argued that sibling visitation rights were an exception under Maryland law, but the court said these cases usually deal with minor siblings wanting to visit other minor siblings and Victoria is now an adult.

“We recognize that siblings often enjoy close relationships, and that some courts have held that the sibling relationship enjoys constitutional protection,” the court wrote in its opinion. “Maryland courts, however, have not found that the sibling relationship is of constitutional dimension.”

The court also said Victoria could not prove that there would be a negative effect if she did not visit her brothers. The youngest does not ask about her, and the older brother only inquires occasionally, according to court documents.

“A court may certainly empathize with the plight of an adult sibling seeking visitation, particularly under facts as fraught as those presented in the instant case,” the court wrote. “Courts must, however, in the absence of proof of significant deleterious effect, abide by the choices of a fit parent to deny visitation.”

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

In Re: Victoria C., September Term 2012, No. 174 Argued Sept. 29, 2011. Decided February 2, 2012. Reported. Opinion by Berger, J.

Issue:

Can the court impose a third-party visitation of minor siblings by an adult sibling against the wishes of the parents?

Holding:

No; reversed. The parents’ right to decide the care, custody and control of their children extends to sibling visits.

Counsel:

Samantha Z. Smith, of Timchula & Smith PA in Westminster, for appellant; Constance J. Ridgway of Wakefield & Ridgway PA in Woodstock for appellee.

RecordFax 12-1126-03 (20 pages).